Thursday, November 27, 2008

Screw Black Friday!

I just saw a TV spot urging people to set their alarm clocks and go shopping at 4 AM to get great deals on... stuff. Jewelry, in particular. Ooh! Shiny things!

To hell with that!

The economy is pretty crappy right now so if retail stores want to attract customers, make it easy for them to buy, not more difficult. No games.

Get up early and go to your store at 4 AM? How about never? Is never good for you?

When I see a store that rejects this fascist Black Friday crap, they'll get my business. To hell with the ones who don't!

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Innovation could be our salvation

Three new books offer advice on when and how to harness the power of creativity.

How do we get out of this mess we're in? The United States doesn't manufacture very much any more, nor is agriculture likely to re-emerge as the driving force of our economy. American popular culture is still dominant throughout the world, but many of the movie studios and remaining record companies are foreign-owned. Ditto with industries like brewing (Miller, Anheuser-Busch), pharmaceuticals and many more.

Some observers say that small business will take the lead and will aggregate the necessary critical mass for economic growth, and that may well be the case. Innovation could serve as the fuel to power the engine. As corny as it may sound, American ingenuity is a formidable force and could be our salvation. Three recent books look at ways to foster and capitalize on innovation.

The Way of Innovation: Master the Five Elements of Change to Reinvent Your Products, Services and Organization. Kaihan Krippendorff. Platinum Press. 256 pages.
Krippendorff's 2004 book, Art of the Advantage, was a fascinating glimpse at traditional Asian philosophical thinking, making it comprehensible and actionable for Western business minds. He looked at stratagems found in books such as Sun Tzu's The Art of War and extrapolated them into hypothetical scenarios that could be replicated within modern commercial settings.

This new book picks up the thread by examining the nature of innovation, the forces that drive it and ways to jump-start the process. Using Buddhist, Hindu and Taoist ideas and principles, Krippendorff cites a number of companies and tells how they utilized these philosophies — consciously or not — to drive innovation and success.

It's an interesting and potentially mind-blowing exploration, and Krippendorff certainly knows his stuff, though I didn't know what to make of this jaw-dropping assertion, coincidentally concerning one of his current clients: "Many believe Wal-Mart uses size to negotiate lower prices from its suppliers. But there is no meaningful evidence to support this.''

From Concept to Consumer: How to Turn Ideas into Money. Phil Baker. FT Press. 192 pages.
Baker takes a decidedly pragmatic view of innovation, and his new book is a mostly no-frills primer on what it takes to get it going. He looks at the various factors including product design, engineering, testing, manufacturing and distribution. There's nothing arcane or mystical here, though he does write expansively on the use of Asian resources for design and manufacturing.

As you would expect, he employs ample examples to illustrate his advice, many of which are derived from primary experiences rather than analyses of case studies. Though his prose is clean and precise, there's plenty of good information herein for those attempting to capitalize on their inspiration.

Mastering the Hype Cycle: How to Choose the Right Innovation at the Right Time. Jackie Fenn and Mark Raskino. Harvard Business School Press. 272 pages.
Timing is everything. The world apparently wasn't ready for Apple's Newton when it was introduced, though Blackberries and other PDAs — including tricked-out iPhones — are now all the rage.

Fenn and Raskino lick their thumbs, check the winds and look at the best times to ride the waves of innovation. As vice presidents and fellows of Gartner Research, they back up their assertions with solid research. They seem to understand the intuitive part of the equation too, which is exactly right, as the creative process is one that draws from many sources (see Krippendorff, above), and not every action can be quantified. But benefiting from the lessons of one's predecessors is never a bad idea.

Published 11/24/08 in The Miami Herald

Monday, November 24, 2008

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Sirius-ly messing with customers

Nationwide howls of "WTF?!" could have been avoided
Most people dislike changes and surprises, despite claims to the contrary. Right now, I'm unhappy with the changes Sirius XM made to their programming, despite that fact that I knew changes were going to happen.

The real problem? Sirius didn't manage customer expectations. At all.

When they combined programming after their long-sought merger, they did so in the middle of the week, informing subscribers about the new order by
e-mail. No prior warning and no research to find out what's popular — no one asked me, anyway.

While it was inevitable that channels would be dropped, especially where there were duplicates, some of the changes are dumb. For example, XM's
punkish "new wave" alternative channels — Fred, Ethyl and Lucy — are gone and the Sirius substitutes lack their flavor and edge, instead, adhering to a more mainstream approach.

While it's nice to have Little Steven's Underground Garage, the addition of a 24-hour Springsteen channel, one for the Grateful Dead, Jimmy Buffet's Margaritaville station (programmed by my old pal, Steve Huntington), an Elvis Presley (not Costello) channel, and another featuring jam bands, is overkill for me. Beyond Jazz, which featured fusion and non-traditional "modern" jazz, is gone — and not replaced by any equivalent.

Soul Street, XM's excellent R&B station, was supplanted by Sirius' more conventional version; ditto with XM's alt-country station, "the X," which was replaced by the Sirius equivalent, which seems to rock a lot less. Hip hop fans are even more exasperated about the loss of their channels, too.

There've been quite a few personnel changes. The 50's channel is now manned by a 60s icon (at least in New York), "Cousin Brucie" (Bruce Morrow) who must be a million years old now, since I listened to him when I was a kid, on WABC. Not that big a deal to me, but the guy who used to do the 50s stuff is an authority on the music and was really great the few times I listened.

The 70s channel now has my old pal Ron Parker, who's an excellent Top 40 jock, though he's been shouting and puking a bit too much for my tastes, unfortunately.

Some programming, like Howard Stern's channel, now requires an additional monthly fee.

And every time I get out of my car, when I come back, the tuner reverts to the preview channel. I already subscribe. I don't need a preview!

But it's less about my personal tastes and tics, and more about the way things were done.

The last figures I saw for subscribers (July) had XM with 9.6 million and Sirius with 8.9 million; that's 18.5 million total, now reportedly up to 19.1 million. But they're still losing money — a ton of money:
they reported a $4.8 billion net loss for the third quarter of 2008. Their stock traded this week at 16¢ a share.

Upsetting subscribers is a very bad idea. The company can't afford it. There are
now many other options that didn't exist or weren't as readily available several years ago.

Other problems are ahead. Terrestrial radio is trying to force inclusion of their new "HD" stations onto satellite receivers. Oy.

When my Sirius XM subscription expires in a year and a half, I'll have to consider whether it's worth renewing. A few months ago, I was happy with my XM (that's right; "my XM"), and if you'd suggested I'd ever consider canceling, I would have laughed.

Now, not so funny.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Relevance or irrelevance?

Making and selling things that matter

A collection of vignettes about companies that strive to connect

Relevance: Making Stuff that Matters. Portfolio. 272 pages.

Author Tim Manners’ Cool News of the Day is an interesting website. A marketing director with whom I worked turned me on to it a few years back, and I received its daily e-mails for a while, then unsubscribed. Why?

Well, the site’s real name — — makes one promise and “Cool News of the Day” suggests something else. But thinking about why I’d begun letting the missives remain unread in my in-box, I realized that neither was true. There wasn’t much newsy about them. In fact, there was little, if anything, time-sensitive therein. Mostly, there seemed to be a sameness in tone and content, so if I’d unsubscribed, I wouldn’t be missing much.

The subject matter throughout was marketing with a relentlessly consumerist approach, not “reveries” or meditations in any sense. Or maybe they were and I was far too obtuse to notice. That’s a distinct possibility, though in all fairness (to myself), the nature of e-mail and the Web requires almost instant appeal — which wasn’t there for me. Now, a few years hence, I favor RSS feeds over e-mail, so I subscribed and will give it another shot.

This book, however, represents an opportunity for Manners to stretch out a bit, to really deliver some actual reveries. But that’s not what he wanted to do, apparently, as the content mirrors the e-mails. There are short corporate profiles in four categories: Insight, Innovation, Design and Value. Just about every story begins more or less the same way; with a brief statement of the problem, then the remedy is elucidated by a corporate exec. The consistent thread, of course, is the eponymous “relevance,” with different meaning to the purveyors and users of each product or service. And sometimes, the same thing means something else.

Manners writes about one airline who upset its female customers by building a website to specifically cater to them, while another airline gained favor by doing something similar. He also discusses companies who claim to ignore demographics and segment their market in other ways, and firms that disregard conventional wisdom and do what they think is best, valuing the intuitive over the empirical. But don’t most successful ventures define rather than follow best practices?

A few of Manners’ own insights are sprinkled throughout the book, as well. When writing about the artist once again known as Prince and his scheme to distribute CDs at concerts, which the music industry ultimately refused to count in its sales charts, the author tartly (and smartly) opines: “This seems to be a pattern in the record business: If it outwits the rules, outlaw it.”

If there’s any thread that runs through the book, it’s that delivering value to customers is key, whether it’s in terms of cost, utility, design, convenience or in other less tangible and more ephemeral ways. In fact, the book’s final two chapters — a “coda” and a ten bullet-point list of “certain secrets” — sum up everything perfectly; so well, in fact that they render the rest of the book somewhat redundant, except for the pleasant corporate vignettes.

published 11/17/08 in The Miami Herald

Monday, November 17, 2008

Old white people rocking

So lame, I didn't even stay for the the free food and drinks. Elaine called me a snob, but when it comes to rock and roll, I plead insanity guilty!

Friday, November 14, 2008

Monday, November 10, 2008

Johnny Bunko and friends

Daniel Pink, a fantastic writer and visionary, is the author of two great books; Free Agent Nation which came out in 2002 and is about the rise of the independent worker, and “A Whole New Mind” from 2005, about the future of creativity and how integrating our creative and pragmatic minds gives us, well, a whole new mind.

His latest book, “The Adventures of Johnny Bunko: The Last Career Guide You'll Ever Need” is something else entirely. It’s manga, the Japanese form of graphic storytelling, like a comic book or graphic novel. Actually, it’s a westernized version of manga, read right to left (like Hebrew) and not the other way around, as in English, but the artist, Rob Ten Pas, incorporates most of the medium’s conventions, so unless you’re a nit-picker or mega-fanboy, manga it is! (A formal review of it, along with a couple of more traditional offerings, is below.)

Anyway, there’s a video promo for the book here (and a q&a session here), plus a website with excerpts and more. In fact, before very long, the whole book will be on the site, since Pink is posting a couple of pages every few days. Or you can get a big chunk online.

The six secrets in the Bunko book are vital lessons for nearly any successful career. They are: 1. There is no plan, 2. Think strengths, not weaknesses, 3. It's not about you, 4. Persistence trumps talent, 5. Make excellent mistakes, and 6. Leave an imprint.

What do the “lessons” mean? Well, the trailer will give you a good idea, but the book is quite entertaining (really!), well illustrated, short enough (160 pages), and you can get it for about ten bucks on Amazon so check it out.

But the idea behind it, in Pink’s own words, is that "most career books just plain stink. They’re too long, too boring, and too quickly outdated. Today most people get their tactical career information online — how to write a resume, what questions to ask in an interview, who to use as a reference, etc. What they want in a book, or so people tell me, are (sic) what they can’t get from Google. They want strategic lessons — and they want it presented in an accessible, to-the-point way. Most career books take about 30 hours to plow through. You can read this book in an hour.”

Creating a career is a job
Three new books offer advice for those seeking clarity while pursuing career goals.

For most people, career paths are unclear at best. Maybe some athletes or artists have a defined course to follow, but even then, things change. For the rest of us, change happens despite our best intentions or hopes for the contrary.

Three new books offer advice and wisdom for those who seek to define their life's work.

The Adventures of Johnny Bunko: The Last Career Guide You'll Ever Need. Daniel H. Pink, Rob Ten Pas. Riverhead Books. 160 pages.

Daniel Pink has blown my mind for a third time. His first book, Free Agent Nation, was a prescient and insightful survey of the tectonic shifts occurring in the topography of work and careers. The next one, A Whole New Mind showed how true integration of the right and left sides of the brain, combining the creative with the pragmatic, is the way of the future. But this new one is a real trip. It's a comic, er, graphic novel. But that's not correct, either. It's really an ersatz, westernized version of manga, the Japanese comic art form.

Here, Pink, abetted by award-winning artist Rob Ten Pas, creates an ill
ustrated career guide that blows away all the rest with its clarity, simplicity and intelligence. There's also humor, a little romance, caricatured villainy, corporate conflict and more. While the ideas herein are strong and attractively presented, the medium with which they are conveyed makes them irresistible. The flashback of the protagonist's job interview will resonate with anyone who has gone through that ridiculous exercise.

Any career consultant — or high-school guidance counselor — who doesn't immediately order copies of this book in bulk is missing the boat — big time. If you're skeptical, check out the author's cool but clean website to see for yourself. There's also a generous sample of the book online.

How'd You Score That Gig?: A Guide to the Coolest Jobs and How to Get Them. Alexandra Levit. Ballantine. 352 pages.

For those who still like to read words without pictures, Levit provides a very nice career catalog. Of particular value to those just starting out — or starting again — she presents a number of personality types (she calls them ''passion profiles'') that link to different careers and jobs. Her style is both personal and personable, and you'll learn a bit about her own life and travails while reading this book. That's not always a good or useful thing, but here it works just fine. For example, in the section on marketing, Levit discusses her own experiences in that mysterious profession.

But it's not just focused on her life. There are numerous short notes in each section from professionals in those fields. My only criticism is that the book runs a little long, due partly to its casual, conversational tone. But it needn't be read sequentially, so skipping around may alleviate this concern.

Job Hunting Online. Mark Emery Bolles and Richard Nelson Bolles. Ten Speed Press. 224 pages.

Looking for a job is a job unto itself, with requisite skills that have been transformed — just like everything else — by technology. If you're accustomed to dealing with employment agencies and newspaper classified ads, it's a different world now. Online is where it's at, with Craigslist, CareerBuilder, Monster and a host of other online resources providing the means to find and be found by prospective employers.

For those who are stymied by the changes, Richard Bolles, the guy behind the popular What Color Is Your Parachute, and his son, Mark, will set you straight.

Reviews published 4/21/08 in the Miami Herald; preface originally appeared on

MGM films come to YouTube

YouTube has cut a deal with MGM to bring a number of the latter's films to the online video service.


Hope it includes my fave, The Long Goodbye.

Thursday, November 6, 2008

Reality Check

How to do almost everything well
Marketing maven Guy Kawasaki presides over an assemblage of experts with all the answers.

Reality Check: The Irreverent Guide to Outsmarting, Outmanaging and Outmarketing Your Competition. Guy Kawasaki. Portfolio. 496 pages

Former software evangelist, would-be Hawaiian hockey goon, itinerant journalist and venture capital pimp Guy Kawasaki's new book is a group effort. He enlisted a legion of business superheroes to inveigh on a variety of topics. Even though Kawasaki, author of The Macintosh Way, The Art of the Start, Rules For Revolutionaries, How to Drive Your Competition Crazy and other smart books, could have easily written most of it himself, he's still come up with a gem.

In a way, this compendium is like MBA in a Box, another compilation of wisdom by sundry sages and savants. In other ways, it's like a cocktail party, as Kawasaki effortlessly glides from table to table, chatting with his guests, who offer very bright and pithy comments in response to the host's queries.

Each brief chapter covers an important aspect of business. The book begins at the beginning: starting a business. That's pretty logical for Kawasaki, given his current occupation as a seeker of startups. And it's not a bad idea, as his audience from The Art Of The Start might have been expecting this to be its sequel, so perhaps this will ease them into the rest of this book. Regardless, the short chapters make Reality Check a good book to read in short spurts. Though there's a little overlap between chapters, this slight redundancy serves to reinforce the lessons.

Of value to most readers are the portions dealing with job seeking. The advice, both from the perspective of employee and employer, is realistic and sound. The chapters covering the vagaries and realities of the corporate world are also quite funny and true.

As a disruptive marketing maven and evangelist, Kawasaki is in a class by himself. He's had ample time to reconsider, revise and hone his points, and it shows. But his core stuff is as potent now as ever. He wants marketing to accurately reflect the products and the products to bring real value to users. Interactions with customers should be positive experiences for both parties. And hard work, innovation and elegant design are things to aspire to, not because they're ethereal and magical but because they're fun! Or can be, if done right and that's the point.

There's also a nice chunk devoted to altruistic enterprises, which is becoming an increasingly valuable part of the executive equation.

Kawasaki is a witty writer (and host), can drop Yiddish like a shtarker, avoids the vernacular (with one very excusable exception), and employs the term ''shiitake'' instead of deleting the corresponding expletive. There's bound to be plenty of things in the book that may not pertain to your profession or interests, but readers can skip the material or painlessly expand their horizons.

Reality Check concludes first with the author's hindsights, which Kawasaki has used as the basis of a commencement speech. It's funny, knowing and poignant. He closes with a 10-point checklist to sum up his main ideas, which is pretty amazing for a book of this size.

published 11/3/08 in The Miami Herald

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Alternate Universe Olbermann and Maddow

Oh no!

(Click on the image to read the whole strip.)

(from the utterly brilliant Tom Tomorrow)