Tuesday, October 31, 2006

Fortune 500 Corporate Blog Review: Comcast (#94)

Another company with no corporate blogs. Neither a dozen Google searches nor a detailed parsing of the Comcast site map turned up anything resembling a company-authored blog (plenty of complaint-ridden blog entries, however).

This is getting repetitive. And ironic, given Comcast's position as a major force in the broadband internet and its increasing penetration into the content space.

So, rather than bemoan the lack of blogs, I wanted to ponder a bit on why large companies like Comcast don't blog. Some thoughts:

  1. Too risky. Blogs are hard to do well, especially when you're trying to balance between many constituencies. The demands of public ownership, for one, and the strictures of Sarbanes-Oxley can put a crimp in anyone's communication strategy. Yet many companies (IBM, Intel) blog well regardless.

  2. Don't want a lame PR blog. Most executives I've met or worked with don't write their own material. Instead, they have their marketing department or PR firm ghostwrite it for them. That would be presentations, articles for industry publications, op-eds, etc. And blog entries. It's possible these executives realize in advance how weak such a blog would be, and don't bother.

  3. Not a priority; don't see the value. Large company executives like command-and-control, whether or not their organization works that way. And what is the benefit of a "conversation" in a command-and-control environment? People more comfortable with blogging are from collaborative environments such as academia, product development, and web companies.

  4. Unaware. Former Viacom CEO Tom Freston's roast appearance last week (see a good article on it here) made fun of his obliviousness to new technology. ("The first thing I did when I got canned was to go out and buy a computer. I'd been meaning to do it, but thought, I work in global media, who needs a computer?") Note: his speech was ghostwritten.

, ,

IAC/InteractiveCorp update: web ventures by the dozen

Since I did the corporate blog review of IAC/InteractiveCorp last week, I've taken a heightened interest in news about the company. And today, the New York Times had a lengthy article on IAC's internet strategy. According to the article, IAC plans dozens of small ventures, such as their purchase of Collegehumor.com, rather than making larger and riskier acquisitions (read: Myspace, Youtube, etc.).

Among IAC's new ventures is Very Short List, a daily email newsletter (but not a blog; why not?), in collaboration with, among others, Kurt Andersen, formerly editor of New York Magazine and currently host of Studio360 on NPR. Very Short List is best described as a sort of tastemaker's recommendation for books, movies, etc., that you should be buying (and which you can buy through the site). According to the Times, it's in "pre-production" phase, which is probably why HTML error messages ensued when I tried to sign up for the newsletter.

They also plan a humor site in collaboration with Arianna Huffington. I'm laughing already!

All this internet activity points out that IAC needs some corporate blogs, now.

I'm available at a reasonable price, Mr. Diller.

, ,

Monday, October 30, 2006

A refresher on brainstorming

The New York Times' "What's Offline" column this past weekend gave some pointers on more effective brainstorming, courtesy of Business 2.0 (the original article is not on the website yet). Poking around on Google a bit led me to an interesting blog post from Good Morning Thinkers on brainstorm facilitation, which lists key brainstorm success factors:

Judge Later

Avoid Discussion

Capture Every Idea

Be Specific

Build On Other People's Ideas

Everyone Must Participate

Set Time Limit--45 minutes to an hour maximum

Number Your Ideas--100 per hour is good performance

To the above I'd add the following: pick a good group and a good setting. I was involved with one brainstorming session that stood above all others I'd done. The division president asked a group of middle managers to recommend ways to move the company into the future. We assembled at a conference center at Cape Cod for two days, enjoyed each other's company, and generated a ton of ideas, which we winnowed down to a reasonable number on the second day at the session.

We were too young and too detached from the pressure of normal strategic planning to be inhibited. And the environment at the Cape, quiet in the off-season, with the ocean waves rolling in and out, relaxed everyone and freed our minds even more.

, ,

Google AdWords report week 3

Here are the statistics for the third week of the Google ad experiment.

# impressions via Google search: 509; #website hits: 5; clickthrough percentage: 0.98%

# impressions via Google's ad network (i.e., other sites where Google posts ads): 4,313; #website hits 8; clickthrough percentage: 0.19%

# response forms: 0

Search impressions down somewhat, clickthroughs down too. Ad network clicks up. The total is about the same. Search clickthrough percentage of nearly 1%. Here is the keyword report:

Keyword [?]
Search terms that trigger your ads
Impressions [?]
Times your ad has shown
Clicks [?]
Visits to your website
Total Cost
Charges in this period
mvno Delete 383 4 $2.01
mvno wireless Delete 4 1 $0.56
mvne Delete 50 0 -
caddell Delete 47 0 -
gsm mvno Delete 9 0 -
john caddell Delete 3 0 -
mvno cellular Delete 2 0 -
mvno companies Delete 2 0 -
mvno consultant Delete 2 0 -
mvno operators Delete 2 0 -
mvno startup Delete 2 0 -
mvno telecom Delete 2 0 -
startup mvno Delete 1 0 -
cable mvno Delete 0 0 -
mvne consultant Delete 0 0 -
mvne market Delete 0 0 -
mvne providers Delete 0 0 -
mvne とは Delete 0 0 -
mvno billing Delete 0 0 -
mvno consultants Delete 0 0 -
mvno consulting Delete 0 0 -
mvno mvne Delete 0 0 -
mvno services Delete 0 0 -
mvno subscribers Delete 0 0 -
what is mvne Delete 0 0 -
Content network - Google partner sites that show your ad [?] 4,313 8 $4.10
Your overall performance* [?] 4,822 13 $6.67

I'm starting to think about how to adjust the campaign after the month is over. What would be the effect of raising the ad budget, perhaps? See you again next week.

, ,

Wednesday, October 25, 2006

Fortune 500 Corporate Blog Review: InterActiveCorp (#313) - slim pickings

Well, being that IAC/InterActiveCorp owns some of the most prominent internet properties in the world, like Ask.com, Match.com and Lending Tree, as well as Bloglines, an RSS aggregation service, you'd probably guess that their corporate blogging program is alive and well.

And you'd be wrong.

There are no blogs to be found at InterActiveCorp's website, via Google and Technorati searches--and, in trolling more than a dozen subsites of its various businesses, I located ONE subsidiary that has a corporate blog, and that is Ask.com.

So, we'll talk about that one.

Name: "Ask's Official Blog"

History: regular posts since February 2005.

Frequency of posts: about five posts per month

Nature of posts: they're product-focused, but many include links to external sites. Matter-of-fact with some humor (they had a nice post on "Talk Like A Pirate Day"). They're signed by "the Ask team" or "the International team," less frequently by a named individual and often have no byline at all.

Design/functionality: nice-looking with lots of pictures. Offers RSS and Atom feeds. Several ties into bloglines, their subsidiary. They allow comments (moderated) and trackbacks. The adminstrator is not identified.

Links etc.: The blog is ranked #3,155 at Technorati, and is unclaimed. They are linked to by many blogs, including the Google blog, and themselves link to the Google and Yahoo search blogs.

Another irony in the InterActiveCorp blogging story is the fact that its chairman, Barry Diller, is a minor celebrity (married to Diane von Furstenberg) and as such is a frequent subject of bloggers worldwide. Perhaps as a result he dislikes blogs and bloggers?

, ,

Tuesday, October 24, 2006

Alliance week day 5 - Managing complementors with soft power

We're wrapping up Alliance Week with another look at complementor relations--that is, alliances between companies that "independently provide complementary products or services directly to mutual customers." These kinds of partnerships have become extremely important, especially in technology markets.

Complementor relationships are short on hard commitments, lengthy agreements (a la Renault/Nissan), and assertive governance. So how can they be managed? David Yoffie and Mary Kwak, the authors of the recent Harvard Business Review article on this topic (link - $$), look at two tools available: "hard power" and "soft power." Hard power includes inducements (like direct payments) and coercion--not unlike what Collins & Aikman used recently with Ford Motor. Today, though, let's look at soft power and how it can be used to manage a complementor relationship.

Types of soft power include sharing market and technical information with partners, collaborating on standards and, perhaps most interestingly, shaping a vision for the market that encompasses both one's own products and the complementor's. Say Yoffie and Kwak,

Managers are usually better at articulating their vision for their own company and their customers than in formulating a vision that also incorporates the health and welfare of their complementors. But those who master this latter task, like Steve Jobs, are most likely to succeed.

At the risk of being redundant--who hasn't heard enough about Steve Jobs?--stop for a moment and think of his feat with iPod/iTunes. He listened carefully to the record labels' concerns and issues, primarily security, built those features into the product in a way that didn't compromise the user experience, then sold the hell out of the platform and won tens of millions of customers--and billions in revenues for the music companies.

So, if you've got a product or platform and need help from complementors, start evangelizing--not about how the product will help your business, but how it will help theirs.

, ,

Google AdWords report week 2

Here are the statistics for the second week of the Google ad experiment.

# impressions via Google search: 700; #website hits: 9; clickthrough percentage: 1.3%

# impressions via Google's ad network (i.e., other sites where Google posts ads): 9,164; #website hits 3; clickthrough percentage: 0.03%

# response forms: 0

More impressions, more clicks. That's good. Oddly, there was a huge spike in ad network impressions on Friday (something like 4,000 that day alone--ten times the other days). I'm growing more comfortable with the low clickthrough through the ad network. Search is more active, and the ad network is more passive--people are doing something else, just as in ads in newspapers or magazines.

The search clickthrough percentage of 1.3% is good. Here is the basic report you get from Google as to overall keyword performance:

Keyword [?]
Search terms that trigger your ads
Impressions [?]
Times your ad has shown
Clicks [?]
Visits to your website
Total Cost
Charges in this period
mvno Delete 415 5 $2.18
mvne Delete 81 2 $1.54
mvno wireless Delete 11 1 $0.64
startup mvno Delete 2 1 $0.05
caddell Delete 161 0 -
gsm mvno Delete 8 0 -
mvno cellular Delete 5 0 -
mvno companies Delete 2 0 -
mvno mvne Delete 2 0 -
mvno operators Delete 2 0 -
what is mvne Delete 2 0 -
john caddell Delete 1 0 -
mvne market Delete 1 0 -
mvne providers Delete 1 0 -
mvno billing Delete 1 0 -
mvno consultants Delete 1 0 -
mvno consulting Delete 1 0 -
mvno services Delete 1 0 -
mvno startup Delete 1 0 -
mvno subscribers Delete 1 0 -
cable mvno Delete 0 0 -
mvne consultant Delete 0 0 -
mvne とは Delete 0 0 -
mvno consultant Delete 0 0 -
mvno telecom Delete 0 0 -
Content network - Google partner sites that show your ad [?] 9,164 3 $1.83
Your overall performance* [?] 9,864 12 $6.24
1 - 25 of 25 keywords.

So far, so good. I'm seeing some crossover between web site hits and blog hits. I'd like some response forms, though. But it's still early. I'll post again next week.

, ,

Monday, October 23, 2006

Alliance week, day 4--inside the Renault-Nissan alliance

Given all the hype surrounding the now-defunct talks between GM and Renault over creating a global alliance, I decided to look into the model for that alliance--the seven-year-old alliance between Renault and Nissan.

The Renault website contains a large volume of information on the alliance, including the alliance principles. They describe the alliance as follows:

Linked by cross-shareholdings, Renault and Nissan are united for performance through a coherent strategy, common goals and principles, results-driven synergies and shared best practices. They respect and reinforce their respective identities and brands.

Here's a summary of the alliance's key aspects (if you want more, click here for a 26-page booklet(!) describing the alliance):

Cross-shareholdership - Renault owns just under 45% of Nissan; the Japanese company owns 15% of Nissan.

Platform sharing - all new platforms are developed to be allow sharing between Renault and Nissan, with a goal of ten shared platforms by 2010. In addition, they share major components such as powertrains and engines, increasing scale economies.

Joint purchasing - 70% of purchasing dollars are spent through the alliance, yielding savings compared to purchasing separately.

Joint research and development - the two companies coordinate their advanced R&D.

Alliance governance - an Alliance Board, part of a company owned 50/50 by Nissan and Renault, governs the alliance. The board sets goals, assigns teams to individual projects, assess results, etc. Carlos Ghosn, CEO of Renault, heads the board. The individual companies are responsible for managing their brands and their day-to-day business.

In short, an ambitious alliance, notable for its financial results and its openness and transparency. It's hard to imagine GM management signing onto such an assertive partnership. Now we'll get to see how they fare without it.


Friday, October 20, 2006

Alliance week day 3 - "Complementors" and managing them

The "complementor" relationship, in which different companies make and market products that work together, is a fast-growing yet poorly-understood type of partnership, a point brought out in a fine article in the September issue of the Harvard Business Review.

Here's how the authors, David Yoffie and Mary Kwak, define complementors:

Companies that independently provide complementary products or services to mutual customers [which] increase the value of each other's offerings and the size of the total market.

Examples include the digital camera industry (where flash memory and photo printers are complementary products) and the video game industry (where games are complementary to the consoles), not to mention the PC industry (microprocessors, operating systems, application programs, security programs, and on and on).

Complementors are valuable because the products they sell increase the size of the market and therefore spur sales of the base product, and yet don't require the base product company to invest in the development and sales of the product.

So what's the catch? The very nature of these relationships--that of independent companies selling separately--makes them hard to manage. As Yoffie and Kwak state,

Although complementors share many goals--notably, the desire to expand their common market--their interests are frequently misaligned.... As a result, tensions can develop in many areas, such as pricing, technology, and, perhaps most important, control of the market--both in terms of which company has the most influence over customers and which one gets the bigger slice of the pie.

For an example of complementor tension, read this article about the dispute between security giant Symantec and Microsoft over how easily external security programs will be integrated into Microsoft Vista.

One could do an entire PhD dissertation on this topic, so let's stop there for now. We'll take it up again later in Alliance Week.

, ,

Thursday, October 19, 2006

Alliance week continues - partnerships in distressed industries

Perhaps we should call it "Can't we all just get along? week." More partners fighting, but this time, we've got the added dimensions of the distressed US auto industry and the blunt instrument known as Chapter 11.

The Wall Street Journal reported (link here - subscription required) that Collins & Aikman, a longtime Ford Motor Company supplier, had cut off shipments to Ford's plant in Mexico--where the popular Ford Fusion is assembled--over a pricing dispute. (Here is a free link to a related article.)

Ford's situation is well-known. Collins & Aikman, an auto parts manufacturer created by former Reagan budget czar David Stockman, has been in Chapter 11 since May 2005.

Chapter 11 protection gives Collins & Aikman lots of power they wouldn't otherwise have. It's very difficult for companies who have contracts with Chapter 11 companies to renegotiate or terminate those contracts, and conversely it's very easy for Chapter 11 companies to renegotiate or terminate contracts if they wish to. (This powerpoint presentation includes a very good overview of US corporate bankruptcy, and slides 15-18 neatly summarize a bankrupt company's options regarding contracts.)

Which means companies like Collins & Aikman have lots of leverage they wouldn't possess if they were normal, going concerns. In this case, Collins & Aikman requested price hikes on certain of its plastic interior components, which Ford refused to pay. Says the Journal:

[This action] follows years in which the big Detroit auto makers have squeezed their suppliers to protect their own profit margins.

Needless to say, Ford agreed to the higher prices soon after the plant went idle.

The action of shutting off deliveries and thereby idling an assembly line is extremely rare. But Ford's comments betray their limited leverage: "This relationship has been irreparably harmed," said a Ford spokesman. The close integration of a parts supplier and the auto manufacturer means that there's a long lead time to replace a supplier. And existing contracts with a Chapter 11 company can't be terminated. Check back in a few years and see if Ford has followed through on its threat to cut off future business.

, ,

Wednesday, October 18, 2006

Alliance week begins - power struggles in David/Goliath partnerships

I'd been reflecting on this blog and realized that I'd been doing a disservice to the last word in the title. Not enough alliance posts. How to remedy that? Well, let's establish a special week. Call it Alliance Week. Of course, due to my own procrastination, Alliance Week begins on Wednesday.

This article in yesterday's Wall Street Journal caught my eye. Global Vision Inc., a small wholesaler of surplus brand-name goods (we'll call them "David") and a long-time Wal-Mart supplier, stood up to that very large customer, whom we'll refer to as Goliath. Sam's Club in Puerto Rico, a division of Goliath Inc., returned a slow-selling order (ostensibly because of defective merchandise) and deducted the cost from their next payment without David's agreeing to it.

But instead of accepting the small writeoff ($10,000) in order to keep the peace with Goliath, David struck back. He escalated to Goliath headquarters, and eventually used the only leverage he had--refusing to ship new product to Goliath stores in Puerto Rico until the matter was resolved.

Goliath soon backed down and paid for the order.

The point here from an alliance perspective is: how can you avoid being stepped on by a bigger partner, when you need them more than they need you?

We can learn some lessons from David. Sometimes, if you can't work out a dispute with your partner otherwise, you have to retaliate. And just because you're smaller doesn't mean you're powerless. So, some thoughts:

  1. You can't be afraid to take a stand, even if it angers your partner, when the issue is important enough--this is especially true when the partner's behavior could set a bad precedent for your future interactions.

  2. Exhaust the normal negotiation channels first.

  3. Use your leverage sparingly. A partner who always fights is soon not a partner anymore.

  4. Focus your actions. David first shut down shipments to Puerto Rico, and then to a few other countries, where he knew the lack of his goods would hurt the most.

  5. Be prepared for the consequences. At minimum, there'll be lots of yelling and accusations of bad faith. Threats, perhaps. And it's possible, though usually less likely than we think, to lose the business.

, ,

Tuesday, October 17, 2006

Time kills deals

A boss I had ten years ago told me this. I've never had better, more succinct advice on how to sell.

Our natures urge us to procrastinate. This is especially true when selling, an uncomfortable role for most people. "I can make that call tomorrow." "Following up can wait."

We're also very lenient with prospects' delays. We want to give them time to work things out, instead of jumping in and managing them toward a decision. Here's the worst sales maxim ever: "No news is good news." In selling, nothing can be further from the truth.

So, make that call today. Go searching for the bad news in any deal you're working on. If the client is slow making a decision, get involved and try to move them ahead. Don't wait. And why is that? Well, you know the answer now.

(Picture from flightstore.co.uk.)


Monday, October 16, 2006

Google AdWords report week 1

Here are the statistics for the first week of the Google ad experiment, which I talked about last week.

# impressions via Google search: 402; #website hits: 3; clickthrough percentage: 7.5%

# impressions via Google's ad network (i.e., other sites where Google posts ads): 4,925; #website hits 7; clickthrough percentage: 0.14%

Out of those ten hits in total, no response forms filled in yet from my website.

An important observation: more than 90% of the impressions came from the ad network, yet the clickthrough percentage was a fraction of what it was with the search ads. This is something I observed at the last place when we tried this advertising. It may simply be a fact of life, yet it's hard to diagnose because Google doesn't provide nearly the detail they do with ads on their search site.

It's too early for any firm conclusions yet. I'll post on the progress again next week.

, ,

Friday, October 13, 2006

A primer on designing for experience

I found this great post on the Product Development and Management Association blog. It contains the slides and the audio of a presentation by Shimon Shmueli, former worldwide marketing manager for IBM Thinkpad consumer sales and now a product design consultant.

The talk emphasizes how to design a product with the customer's experience in mind--not for features, but for how the user experiences the product. To Shmueli, users fall in love with (or hate) a product because of the experience they have with it. It's refreshing and thought-provoking. Analyzing the user's experience can help explain why some products fail and some exceed beyond the maker's wildest expectations.

(Photo of Girard-Perregaux Oracle Team Chronograph from timezone.com)

, ,

Salute to Bangladeshi anti-poverty pioneers week continues

Well, hot on the heels of my recent post on Grameen Phone founder Iqbal Quadir, the Nobel committee has seen fit to honor Grameen Bank founder Muhammad Yunus with a small honor they call the Peace Prize. Warmest congratulations to Mr. Yunus, and a high-five to the Nobel committee for realizing that empowering individuals and unleashing their enterprising natures is the most effective way to lift millions of people from poverty.

We have many, many more millions to go.

, , ,

Thursday, October 12, 2006

We interrupt this blog for an important environmental bulletin

It's inevitable--from time to time, you get blogger's block and aren't inspired enough to create a decent post. In that event, you have two choices: take a day off or somehow find something to write about.

I don't like option 1, because I want to be able to take days off when I plan to, not when the blog-wizard is interfering with my brainwaves.

That leaves option 2. What to write about? Well, I can write about what's on my mind, whether it has anything to do with my blog's subject.

And what's on my mind is... batteries.

Those devices that power your calculator, watch, mobile phone, toys, golf cart, automobile, etc. They are everywhere. More and more batteries are sold every year, and every year we rely on them more. In 1998, according to the US Environmental Protection Agency, consumers bought three billion batteries. One can assume that a similar number were sold in the EU countries. And that was before we all had iPods!

So, yesterday, I was at Batteries Plus replacing my dead car battery. And the best thing they did was to take my old battery and recycle it.

I asked myself: do I recycle the dozens of batteries that our family goes through every year? Answer: no. They go in the trash.

So I did some research. Listen to this statement from the EPA:

Though batteries generally make up only a tiny portion of municipal solid waste (MSW)—less than 1 percent—they account for a disproportionate amount of the toxic heavy metals in MSW. (For example, EPA has reported that, as of 1995, nickel-cadmium batteries accounted for 75 percent of the cadmium found in MSW.)

Here are some facts I wasn't aware of:

  1. Nickel-cadmium (NiCd) rechargeable batteries are classified as hazardous waste--they are the most harmful to the environment if not recycled.
  2. Lead-acid batteries (typically used in cars) contain components that are easy to reuse, and as such are easy recycling candidates.
  3. Watch/calculator batteries often contain silver and mercury--bad materials for landfills or incinerators.
Want to stop throwing away your batteries? Check this link for battery-recycling drop-off points near you (sorry, this list is US only).

, ,

Wednesday, October 11, 2006

How to improve innovation in rapidly-changing markets

In the most recent issue of the Journal of Product Innovation Management, Dr. Tommaso Buganza and Dr. Roberto Verganti studied the traits that make companies more or less successful in turbulent markets (abstract here). Such a market is characterized by rapid changes in technology or market needs, which greatly complicates the new product/service development process. Buganza and Verganti write:

As a result of this dynamic in highly turbulent industries (e.g., software industry), the development process is continuous, and it is hard to identify whether a new output is an incremental innovation (i.e., new version) or a whole new product.

The professors, faculty of the Milan Polytechnic Institute, performed a statistical analysis of the Italian on-line stockbroker industry, which they selected based on its large number of competitors (nearly thirty) and history of rapid change.

The study found companies that successfully managed their turbulent environment shared several traits:

  1. They maintained control of their own applications, yet utilized standard off-the-shelf operating systems and middleware. This allowed them to adapt their applications quickly, yet leverage improvements made by the platform companies. (An interesting conclusion for those considering technology outsourcing.)

  2. They used open and standard technologies.

  3. Their new service delivery procedures were not highly formalized, yet their organizational approach to new service delivery was highly formalized. In other words, they were not held up by a rigid process, but they built teams the same way for each project, so there was consistency that allowed them to work effectively despite that informal process.
, ,

Tuesday, October 10, 2006

The cure to poverty is connectivity and individual empowerment

TEDBlog has just posted a talk from Iqbal Quadir, the Bangladeshi innovator responsible for GrameenPhone, the mobile phone company that has made dramatic differences in quality of life for tens of millions of poor Bangladeshi villagers. For anyone who has felt that fighting poverty in developing countries is a losing battle, please watch Mr. Quadir's talk to gain some refreshing, pragmatic new ideas on the subject.

He believes far more in the power of individuals, even those whose only resources are their minds and imaginations, than the power of the state. He charges that foreign aid has failed to improve living standards, in his words because "aid empowers authorities, not citizens."

If we can start promoting businesses and connectivity in these areas, it can have a much greater impact on people's lives than all the aid we can imagine. Let's do it!

The video can be viewed here.

, , ,

A bit of foolishness

Foolishness is not typically considered beneficial to businesses, except possibly a few minutes of lighthearted fun to relieve the tedium of the workday.

Stanford Business School professor emeritus James G. March thinks, however, that foolishness is an important component of businesses, especially innovative ones. Harvard Business Review interviewed Dr. March in the current issue. And among the many topics he touches on is the need for foolishness.

To March, foolishness is messing around with ideas, trying things out, doing things that aren't rational. Intuition may be a big part of it, or as March says, "a value system that adapts very much to context.") Here's a quote from the interview:

Part of foolishness, or what looks like foolishness, is stealing ideas from a different domain. Someone in economics, for example, may borrow ideas from evolutionary biology, imagining that the ideas might be relevant to evolutionary economics. A scholar who does so will often get the ideas wrong; he may twist and strain them in applying them to his own discipline. But this kind of cross-disciplinary stealing can be very rich and productive. It’s a tricky thing, because foolishness is usually that—foolishness. It can push you to be very creative, but uselessly creative. The chance that someone who knows no physics will be usefully creative in physics must be so close to zero as to be indistinguishable from it. Yet big jumps are likely to come in the form of foolishness that, against long odds, turns out to be valuable.

[Disclaimer: this post itself is a bit of foolishness. I was unable to get access to March's original paper, so I'm relying on the couple of paragraphs in the HBR interview for all my information on this topic. Meaning that I'm investing that brief bit of material with all sorts of my own interpretations, contexts, etc., and in so doing certainly twisting and possibly corrupting March's ideas. I think he'd be pleased.]

So, then, how to apply foolishness to your everyday work? Try something different. Present a tough business problem to your spouse and listen--really listen--to the response. Make a deliberate mistake. Pretend you're the CEO--what would you do differently? Go to the museum and stare at art for a while.

Most likely you'll just be wasting time. But there's a chance that you may stumble on something utterly new.


Monday, October 09, 2006

Using Google AdWords: a live experiment

Today we experiment on ourselves, like those doctors of old who swallowed harmful bacteria to test their own antibiotic creations. The topic is Google advertising. It can be a very cost-effective and productive part of a business' marketing mix. Or a waste of money. We'll see.

The first step was signing up for Google AdWords. Why Google and not Yahoo? We used both in my last company and consistently found that 65%+ of our hits were via Google. So if you want one online ad partner, Google is it.

The signup, including account creation, keyword selection, account verification and billing setup, took about twenty minutes. I chose about thirty keywords. Google has a nice tool that recommends keywords based on initial terms you enter. You want keywords that are as specific as you can create, and you can use multiple-word keywords (such as "MVNO startup").

My campaign focused around MVNOs. MVNO-related work is perfect for Google because the acronym is very specific and limited. Therefore, the competition for positioning isn't nearly as severe as it is for keywords like "personal injury," "insurance" or "mortgage."

You want keywords as specific as you can get them, so that only the people who might need your service will see your ad. Google ranks ads based on budget, so if you have limited-interest keywords, your ad will be positioned higher, cost less, and be more likely to result in a quality clickthrough (i.e., someone who's really interested in your service).

Then I picked a budget. I started with $30 per month. I can monitor the results in real-time, on Google's Ad Campaign web page.

To compare that expenditure with other marketing-related expenses, consider these statistics:

One year of Google AdWords: $360.
One trade show attendance: $1000-$3000.
Local chamber of commerce membership: $250.

Finally, I decided on some metrics. We'll look at them weekly. They are:

# of impressions (or times the ad is viewed)
# of clickthroughs (or times the ad is clicked on, bringing the user to my website)
# of customer contacts (times people fill in the "contact us" form on the website)
# of opportunities resulting from those contacts
# of sales related to the contacts--the bottom line result we want

The first two metrics come from Google. The third comes from my website. The last two I will track on my pipeline report.

So, the experiment starts now. We'll look at the first set of results next Monday. See you then if not before.

, ,

Friday, October 06, 2006

The board of directors - a fatally-flawed structure?

James Surowiecki, the author of the great business book "The Wisdom of Crowds," and financial columnist for the New Yorker, takes up the HP leak scandal in his latest column, but provides a different take on the matter.

Rather than focusing on the dunder-headed leak investigation, Surowiecki looks at the damage a leaking board can do to a company. But in providing a solution to improve board performance, he comes dangerously close to paradox.

He defines two types of conflict typical of workgroups. Says Surowiecki,

Social scientists like to say that good decision-making groups engage in “task conflict,” fighting over the best solutions to particular problems, while bad ones engage in “relationship conflict,” interpreting differences of opinion as differences of character.

Workgroups typically suffer from both types of conflict, but the best overcome it with trust and belief in others' integrity. Surowiecki goes on:

They found that groups whose members trusted one another’s competence and integrity were more likely to engage in task conflict without succumbing to relationship conflict. Paradoxically, the more people trust one another, the more willing they are to fight with each other.

OK, so let's bring that back to boards of directors. In order to be truly effective, board members need to trust one another's competence and integrity. But independent boards are made up of people who don't have lots of history together (i.e., they're independent). They are also typically financially well-off, have large egos, balance lots of priorities and meet only occasionally.

I frankly don't see how this type of board could work in the way Surowiecki envisions. In fact, "rubber-stamp" boards, which have members with tight ties to the company and long tenures, have a better probability in my mind of engaging in productive "task conflict" than independent boards.

The best workgroups I have belonged to met Surowiecki's criteria for trust, integrity and fighting with each other--over ideas, not personality. But those groups worked together forty+ hours a week and shared a mission. And we had to make it work, because we needed our jobs.

, , ,

Thursday, October 05, 2006

Building a good user interface... why don't more companies do it?

We can all agree on something, can't we? User interfaces are important.

Both Google and Apple have dominated their respective markets for search and mobile music largely because of the innovation in their user interfaces (note that innovation in UIs usually corresponds with simplicity).

And products with poor interfaces endure repeated tongue-lashings from product reviewers--here is David Pogue on the Motorola Q phone: "Unfortunately, this software's designers must believe that you bill by the hour; getting anything done on this phone requires more steps than the Empire State Building." And here is Jerry Garrett of the New York Times on BMW's iDrive: "It does have some useful features, if you can twist, click and beat on it accurately enough to navigate its labyrinth of menus — while driving 80 m.p.h."--never mind the eternal irritation of those unfortunate enough to have to use the product.

So, the only remaining question is: why aren't there more good ones?

I've been thinking about that question since reading Matt Barthelemy's terrific article on user interface design in the most recent PDMA Visions magazine.

I can give you a personal perspective. I spent ten years developing technology products. I can tell you that I knew so deeply the beauty and intricacy of the inner product (e.g., a LAN network management product, wireless fraud detection system, telecom mediation platform) that its external interface was almost irrelevant. (It was only when I went into marketing--and got a lot dumber about the innards of my products--did I come to understand that a poor user interface is a serious, possibly fatal, flaw.)

I worked with some human-factors professionals on the network management product. But neither I nor the other developers paid their recommendations much heed. If it took a long time to figure out how to use the product, so be it. It was a complex product. Look at all it did!

Now as dumb as that approach was when applied to the small, niche products I was working with, imagine if the same logic were applied to consumer products. Appreciate the inner beauty... if you're not smart enough to figure out how to use this, maybe you don't deserve this product.

Well, you'd probably wind up with something like iDrive.

, ,

Wednesday, October 04, 2006

If you want to innovate, get some rest

The macho sleep-deprivation culture of global business is dangerous to companies, states Dr. Charles A. Czeisler in an interview from the October issue of Harvard Business Review. Dr. Czeisler, an expert in sleep studies at Harvard Medical School, goes beyond the standard refrain of "we should sleep more" and states categorically that lack of sleep is harming workers, managers and business. (The abstract to the article is here. Of course, HBR gives nothing away--the entire article will cost you $6.00.)

One of many provocative quotes from Dr. Czeisler: "It amazes me that contemporary work and social culture glorifies sleeplessness in the way we once glorified people who could hold their liquor." He goes on to say that a week of sleeping five hours a night makes you perform as if you had a 0.1% blood-alcohol level.

What does this mean for innovation? A lot. The 80-hour-per-week culture simply cannot innovate. At some point, you get so tired that simply taking the next step in a task seems all you could possibly do. There's a term borrowed from warfare for that phase of a software-development project where everyone is overworking: the "death march." And my experience was that, while we met some deadlines, we made mistakes during death marches that we had to repair, at great cost, months and years later.

For innovation you need clear thinking, a quiet mind and reflection. And more than these, you need to make good decisions. Says Dr. Czeisler: "The analogy to drunkenness is real because, like a drunk, a person who is sleep-deprived has no idea how functionally impaired he or she truly is."

So, remember that advice your mentor gave you when you were faced with a difficult decision--"Why don't you sleep on it?" It turns out he was more right than he knew.


Tuesday, October 03, 2006

Everybody needs a jolt of Dan Gilbert once in a while

Thanks to the wonderful TED blog for featuring great MP3's and videos of their TEDTalks speakers. Last week they featured the psychologist Dan Gilbert, a frequent contributor to the New York Times and whose articles inspired several posts in this blog (here and here).

Dr. Gilbert specializes in the limitations of our ability to know ourselves, and how that affects our interactions with others. If you are a marketer, or salesperson, or are involved in any kind of negotiations, you must make yourself familiar with his work.

Check out the TEDBlog post for the video.

, ,

Are we suffering from breakthrough devaluation?

When you read about innovation in the press, your eye glides over the term breakthrough. It's used so often that it passes without notice. But yet, our subconscious sees that word and confers value on whatever is described as such. If it's called a breakthrough, then it must be one.

Then one reads an article like the Wall Street Journal's Portals column from last Wednesday's paper (link here courtesy of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette).

Author Lee Gomes cites statistics from Factiva Research indicating over 8,400 uses of the word breakthrough in press releases. Says Gomes,

To what extent are we experiencing "breakthrough inflation," in which the work that an engineer would consider simply a good day in the lab becomes, in the hands of the PR department, an advance worthy of being shouted about from the rooftops?

I prefer the term "breakthrough devaluation," because if everything is a breakthrough, then nothing is. And if you think about breakthrough--it connotes a very significant barrier, which is "broken through" via very hard work and ingenuity. A high standard indeed. Here is a list of dubious breakthroughs--you decide if the term has lost some of its value:

The first Canon PIXMA printers to earn the Pro designation, both the PIXMA Pro9500 printer - which utilizes long-lasting, pigment-based inks - and the PIXMA Pro9000 printer - which uses long-lasting, dye-based inks - produce brilliant, gallery quality prints up to 13 x 19 inches on a variety of specialty media and fine art papers. "These printers are a breakthrough not simply for Canon but for the industry," stated Yukiaki Hashimoto, senior vice president and general manager of the consumer imaging group at Canon U.S.A., Inc. "We have not simply reformulated inks, we have re-examined the selection of inks needed to create some of the finest, long-lasting prints possible."

Jenzabar, Inc., the pioneer of Total Campus Management (TCM), announced that the Software Information Industry Association has honored its Jenzabar Internet Campus Solution (JICS) with a 2006 CODiE Award as the "Best Postsecondary Educational Portal Solution."... "This award recognizes Jenzabar as leading the way in community building and constituent relationship management solutions for higher education," said Robert A. Maginn, Jenzabar's Chairman and CEO. "This announcement, along with the accolades we've received from clients using the enhanced functionality we recently released, positions JICS as a breakthrough platform for building and extending the campus community via the Internet...."

Skyworks Achieves Performance Breakthrough with New Line of Active Mixers; Broad Frequency Range Powers Infrastructure, Medical, Scientific and Industrial Applications. WOBURN, Mass.--(BUSINESS WIRE)--Sept. 20, 2006--Skyworks Solutions, Inc. (NASDAQ:SWKS), an industry leader in radio solutions and precision analog semiconductors, today unveiled the market's highest dynamic range active mixers for mobile radio systems targeted at infrastructure, medical, scientific and industrial applications. These new broad frequency range solutions, which are part of Skyworks' rapidly growing Linear Products' portfolio, have achieved unprecedented linearity performance via a higher level of RF integration which secondarily improves both form factor and cost through the elimination of a negative power supply and additional amplifiers.

Vitesse Semiconductor Corporation (Pink Sheets:VTSS) today unveiled its latest high-speed crosspoint switches featuring breakthrough capacity and advanced Signal Integrity technology. Featuring a per-port speed of up to 6.5 Gbps and low-latency switching capabilities, the 72x72 VSC3172 and 144x144 VSC3144 asynchronous crosspoints deliver near-terabit aggregate bandwidth capacity. These crosspoints enable new cost and performance breakpoints for blade server, video and network equipment designs used in core, metro and enterprise environments. The new product additions underscore Vitesse's leadership and continued investment in Signal Integrity and Crosspoint solutions along with record product line business growth.

The listings go on for page after page after page. Breakthrough antiviral drugs, breakthrough formal verification of intellectual property solution, even a breakthrough employee benefits E-portal!

What happens when there's a real breakthrough? What will we call it then?

, ,