A Neutral Grip

You can tell it’s a Monday because he’s writing about golf once more.  Well, I’m happy.  It’s finally golf weather here in the NY area – if you don’t mind starting off when the temperatures are around 40 degrees, that is. I spent the last couple of days trying to shake off the winter rust. One thing to which I paid particular attention was probably the most under-appreciated – but most critical – part of the golf swing: the grip.

Every golf instructor begins working with you by asking to see your grip. How you hold the club can trigger many issues that even a perfect swing can’t fix since it affects everything in the swing. The interesting thing is that there is no one right approach although there are some very important basics that all good grips have in common. No, I’m not going to spend the next hundred words teaching you about golf grips since this is a business blog. However, there is a business point to be made.

All good grips return the club face to a neutral position at impact regardless of how the club is manipulated during the swing. Your approach to your strategic thinking needs to be the same. Regardless of how the data or discussions swing your thinking, when you reach the time to take decisions – the point of impact – you need to be in as neutral a position as possible to avoid wayward shots.  Interpret the data with as few prejudices as possible.  Maybe the numbers show your pet project isn’t producing.  As Sonny Corleone said, it’s just business, not personal.  Keep your grip – and your attitude – neutral.

Neutral thinking draws out alternative solutions to problems or opportunities.  It keeps negative thinking at bay and doesn’t let the excitement of the moment when something goes right cloud your longer term thinking.  Just as a neutral grip tends to keep the golf ball from going off-line, a neutral approach to business thinking can keep us heading toward the goal.  Clear?

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Cooks And Bakers

It’s Foodie Friday and today I want you to think about if you’re a cook or if you’re a baker.  Your immediate response, assuming you spend time in the kitchen, might be “Gee, I do both.”  That’s probably true.  When I’m preparing the Thanksgiving feast, I bake pies and the occasional cake but I am definitely NOT a baker.

One of the bakers at Boudin Bakery in Fisherma...

(Credit: Wikipedia)

Maybe it’s my rebellious nature (those of use who lived through the 1960’s have that streak) but baking is way too rigid for me.  Baking is chemistry.  It’s Baroque music to cooking’s jazz.  One has specific formulas and rules; the other encourages improvisation.  I know how certain flavors go together and armed with just an idea and my tools I can usually make something pretty good.  Try that with baking.

When you make a baking mistake it’s pretty obvious.  Not so with cooking.  I can eyeball a tablespoon of oil for a pan.  Try eyeballing a tablespoon of baking powder armed with the knowledge that if you’re off the whole project fails.  This is not to say I think less of bakers.  They are far more precise and patient than I tend to be in the kitchen.  I can’t see very many bakers I know or see on TV going off on a rant while many of the chefs appear to be aggressive, anxious, and on edge.  Walk in to any restaurant and you’ll see them both.  Which is, of course, the business point.

Like a restaurant, any business needs both bakers and cooks on the team to produce a complete product.  You need the team members who try new things and crave pushing the boundaries.  You also need the ones who are calmer and more grounded in the “recipes” that make your business go.  Which brings us back to my initial question.  Are you a baker or a cook?  There is no right answer, but whatever your answer is should remind you that you need someone to make the other half of the menu.  You might be a cook who can bake a little (me) or a baker who has kitchen skills but finding both types are what will make your business well-rounded and last.

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What Vs. How

One of my mantras is that we can’t confuse the business with the tools. I remind clients of this all the time when they’re confused about the imperative to be on a specific platform or address a particular market segment. While they might think their need is to build a better app, I’d rather we explore the underlying business processes and make sure they’re optimal from a customer perspective. The app we’ll then build will reflect a great customer experience and not magnify the flaws in our offering.

Here is another mantra. People hate middlemen but love people who add value. Think about the great sharing economy that’s emerged over the last few years. Uber doesn’t own a single car but facilitates millions of rides. They’re a middleman but they add value by provide generally inexpensive, fast service to consumers while providing income for people with a car and no particular place to go. AirBnB has done the same thing for lodging. I have a spare room or a vacant apartment, you are visiting where I am and don’t want to pay ridiculous rates (and “resort fees“) to stay in a so-so hotel. They add value by putting us together.

In both of those cases, as in others like Etsy, the business has not changed. Someone needs a room or a ride or a scarf. They want them to be fairly priced. They want them to be of great quality and dependable and delivered on the customer’s own terms (timing, etc). These companies have not changed the business. They’ve changed how they made the business happen. The “how” is new, not the “what.”

We need to stop thinking of transforming into “digital” companies.  There are too many of us trying to serve the technology rather than making the technology serve us. Maybe it’s the old guy talking but I don’t see much difference now in the business world I entered in the late 1970’s.  Find people with problems and help them to solve them.  It may be a need to get somewhere or to be better informed or to be in two meetings in two different cites an hour apart.  We’ve solved those business problems with technology.  My business – media – has been among those most affected by this and there is no doubt that the next two or three years will see even more change as people migrate to more over-the-top viewing.  But the business hasn’t changed, really.  People want to be educated and entertained and are willing to pay – either through attention or through their wallets – to see content that does that.  Boy, how the “how” has changed, but at it’s core the “what” is that same as it was when Uncle Miltie made America laugh.

Make sense?

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More Attention, Fewer Things

I’ve been away – did you miss me? My absence was, as I posted the other day, the annual golf trip during which I assess my tolerance for pain and suffering both on the golf course and off. I try very hard not to check email nor to dip my toe into the river of digital content from which I drink daily. Fortunately, I have a bunch of distractions provided by my buddies.  

Today I fully plugged in, having returned to work. Zipping through email was relatively easy – I had already answered the critical ones during the trip and now it was just a matter of newsletters and such. My RSS stream is another matter entirely. There are thousands of articles here and there is no way I can skim them all much less read them. In the process of doing so, however, I thought of something that might be useful to you all as well.

Not everything is critical.  Not everything is important.  Most of it can be ignored safely.  I’ve found that the really important information out there shows up in multiple places and it’s pretty easy to tell that you might want to  check something out when you see it on a second or third stream.    The word itself – “stream” is important.  We’re land animals – we don’t live in a stream.  Lots of experts are beginning to tell us only to check email a few times a day – times when we can afford to task switch and be fully present.

I like this from Oliver Burkeman:

The bigger point here isn’t really about email in particular; it’s about the ever greater “boundarylessness” of work. When anyone can be contacted at any time of day, in any location; when the costs in time and effort of sending a message to a colleague, client or underling dwindle to nothing; when we’re confronted by an effectively infinite amount of information we could consume, or tasks we could perform, if only time were infinite too …

I just deleted a thousand articles in a couple of my stream topics without even looking.  It was the equivalent of recycling unread, old magazines I know I’ll never read nor care if I miss.  All of us need to give more attention to fewer things and stop making ourselves crazy with nits.  Who’s with me?


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Filed under Helpful Hints, Reality checks

Cooking On The Road

Foodie Friday, Myrtle Beach edition.  I’m on the annual golf trip with my buddies (our 21st, thank you) and as you might expect I get to do a good chunk of the cooking while we’re here.  That’s not a complaint.  This area has a serious lack of high-quality restaurants and over the years our group has figured out that staying  in and spending the money on high quality ingredients trumps paying for mediocre food dining out.  I certainly don’t mind cooking.  There is lots of willing and competent help here and those who can’t cook are eager to clean up the mess.  Perfect!

There is one thing I have learned over the years that actually is a pretty good business thought too.  If you’ve ever been on vacation and tried to cook in the rental’s kitchen you know that you are facing a serious challenge.  I think the same company puts the identical dull knives, glass cutting board, and crappy pans into rental condos everywhere.  I don’t mind the mismatched dinnerware nor the 2 slice toaster (ever made toast for 12 in a 2 slicer?).  I do mind the ridiculous – and dangerous – other equipment.  What do we do?

We bring our own.  A couple of good knives, a full-sized rubber cutting board, some serious BBQ tools, a large pot and/or non-stick pan with a lid can make all the difference.  It also requires some smart meal planning choices.  You have to accept that you’re going to stick to basics that don’t require a lot of pans and hopefully very few steps.  Roasted large cuts of meat and better than individual steaks and braises are better than sautes.  You plan your product based on conditions as well as your ability to support it.  Which is the point.

Different conditions, a changed situation means you need to plan ahead, figure out the appropriate resources, and adjust your strategy.  Doing hat you’ve always done and which has satisfied your customers in the past might not have a chance in the situation you’re facing.  No one starves on this trip – we eat quite well, actually – but I don’t even think about making the stuff I’d prepare at home in my fully stocked kitchen.  I don’t try to make it all perfect; I do try to keep the boys fed and happy.  You can think about that the next time the marketplace puts you in a strange business kitchen.

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What Goes Up

One thing on which those of us in media could always count was the constant gradual increase of prices.  Oh sure, unit rates might drop as audiences came and went, but the underlying metric – the cost per thousand views (CPM) of a target audience – would almost always increase except in times of exceptional economic downturn.   When pricing the CPM of an in-demand target such as young adults, the increases could be pretty substantial. 

That truism may no longer hold.  Witness the start of this piece from the Media Daily News:

In what could be the first material sign that even network prime-time TV is not immune from the physical laws of a rapidly expanding media universe, the average cost of broadcast prime-time inventory has eroded for the first time since the recession. While the rollback is small — the average prime-time cost-per-thousand (CPM) of buying adults 18-49 on the broadcast networks fell 2.4% to $43.06 in 2014 — the fact that it declined at all during a non-recessionary period may signal that even the most premium advertising inventory has hit the wall on Madison Avenue.

It’s all the stuff you read about in economics class coming to pass, I guess.  Inventory is no longer a scarce commodity although one could argue that if we’re still approaching every impression as equal we haven’t learned much.  Cross-platform content may be triggering cross-platform buying, and the lower CPM’s from those newer platforms might just be a drag on the older ones.  The reality is that we’re moving from buying demographics to buying behaviors and so many of the old measures just aren’t applicable.  Men 25-54 can’t really be aligned with “people who visited a car dealer website in the last week” even though both can be purchased.  That said, the trend lines for all the CPM’s are headed downward which can’t be a good thing from any ad-supported business model.

I guess if you’re a buyer you don’t mind so much.  The problem is that over time much of the high quality bait (read that as content) for the audiences you seek may wither away, lacking adequate financial support from the inventory it generates.  The audiences will go elsewhere, of course, but maybe not to something that’s ad-friendly (or ad-supported).  Penny-wise and pound-foolish?

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Time Shifting

The New York area was not built for cars.  Putting aside the crumbling infrastructure, the number of cars on the road has far outgrowth the roads’ capacity.  Fortunately, most people living in the city proper choose not to own a car and use the excellent public transportation to get around.  That’s not so true about many of my neighbors here in the suburbs as they commute to their jobs.  They deal with the crappy roads, bad weather, and interminable traffic jams for one reason: convenience.  They’re not tied to a train or bus schedule.  

There is a lesson for all of us in that which is manifesting itself in media.  People would much rather have control.  While the old model of media was audiences sitting down to watch content at the same time (at least within the same time zone), there is research that shows that model is long gone.  The folks at Hub Entertainment Research found that the growth of VOD, DVR’s and OTT services continue to erode consumers’ association of TV shows with a particular day-and-time, linear schedule.

  • Viewers time-shift more TV than they watch live. According to consumers’ own estimates, the average viewer watches 47% of their TV shows live and 53% time-shifted.
  • Among Millennials, time shifting is even more common. Viewers 16-34 say that only 39% of the TV they watch in a typical week is live.
  • A plus for traditional TV providers: most time-shifted viewing still happens through a set top box. DVRs (34%) and VOD (19%) account for more than half of all time-shifted viewing.

There is good news and bad news in this for content creators and their distribution partners.  Obviously where people can skip ads, they generally do:

  • 81% of VOD users say that when fast-forwarding is enabled, they fast-forward through most or all of the commercials during a show. In fact, almost half (49%) say they fast-forward through every ad.
  • The results aren’t much different among DVR users: 89% say they fast forward through most or all ads, and more than half (56%) say they use fast-forward at every commercial break.

The good news is that the library of content most providers/distributors have has become completely accessible.  Think about it – years ago, if yu missed an episode and failed to tape it (and it was tape!), you were screwed.  Not even remotely true today, and every one of those additional views is an opportunity for monetization.  That might be through ads or it might be through encouraging a subscription via the availability of the content.

Don’t assume that consumers taking control is unique to either commuting or to media.  Look at your own business and I’m willing to bet there are examples of how consumers are doing just that.  Like media, there are opportunities that come out of the disruption.  Are you ready to jump on them?

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