Monthly Archives: December 2019

Posts Of The Year 2019 #2

We’re continuing to review the most-read posts of 2019 that were also written this year. Today it’s my post from September 11. It really doesn’t need much explanation other than one thing that this post taught me is that you folks respond well when I make things more personal. A thought for the screed in 2020…

I was going to write about something else this morning but then I looked at the calendar. Today is the 18th anniversary of what is arguably one of the most significant days in America’s history, one whose aftereffects permeate a lot of our daily life here in the USA. Many of them are big and obvious. Wars that have gone on for nearly two decades as a result of that day and the financial decisions we’ve made as a country to support them that affect everything. The sometimes scary and intrusive security measures we’ve taken at airports and elsewhere. The suspicious looks some folks give to others based on their clothing or appearance.

What 9-11 changed in me was something different. My strongest memory isn’t of the smell that wafted northward to where I worked in midtown Manhattan nor is it the incessant sirens as first responders charged into lower Manhattan to try and save lives. My strongest memory is of how beautiful the September morning was and how it’s hard for me 18 years later to experience a crisp, clear morning with a clear blue sky without thinking of that horrible day.

I used to commute via train to my job. That morning, I was heading to the office before catching an afternoon flight to SF with a group of my NHL peers to meet with a client the next day. We had actually switched our flight. We were going to go out that morning on what became one of the planes involved that day but that’s another discussion. I vividly remember coming up the escalator out the Grand Central and looking up at the beautiful sky as we rose. As I left the station, the cool air hit me and I might have even said out loud “what a beautiful day for flying.” No clouds, no wind, no NYC smells, just clear blue air.

Within the hour, the world had changed. A co-worker ran into my office saying a plane had hit the World Trade Center. I said it must have been a small plane and planes had hit buildings in NY before. We turned on the TV as the second plane hit and realized that this was not an accident.

The rest of the day is a blur of making phone calls to check on friends, receiving phone calls from people checking on me, wondering how I’d get home since the trains and other transport was shut down, and helping my staff deal with the day. The one thing that still won’t leave me though is the memory of leaving the station and walking to my office on one of the most beautiful NY mornings ever, a wonderful day for flying.

No business points today. Please think about those who were lost on 9-11 and those first responders who are still paying the price for their bravery.

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Filed under Thinking Aloud, What's Going On

Foodie Friday Post Of The Year 2019

We are continuing in the yearly review of the most-read posts written this year and today it’s the most-read Foodie Friday post written this past year. In fact, this actually was the most-read post of all, as it turned out. I wrote it last April as a meditation on salty snacks and how they really aren’t a long-term solution to our hunger problem. As usual, it turned out there was a business point lurking. Enjoy!

It’s Foodie Friday! Today I’d like us to contemplate the foods that make us hungry. No, I don’t mean the ones for which we have cravings. I mean food that can actually increase your hunger when you eat them.avoid fast food solutions

Have you ever wondered why bars put out salty snacks like popcorn or peanuts or pretzels? As it turns out, salt makes you thirsty and what better place to be when you’re thirsty than your favorite watering hole? Salt, according to some studies, is addictive, as is sugar and fat. The food industry has become very good at layering those things together to create products (I’m deliberately not saying “foods”) that play to our addictions, light up our dopamine centers, and cause us to engage in self-destructive behaviors. When you hear the old Lay’s slogan about “bet you can’t just eat just one,” you might try to think about what the drug pusher says as they give away their free samples to people: “don’t worry – you’ll be back.”

The screed today isn’t meant to be a lecture on improving our eating habits. Instead, there is a business point here. We don’t eat salty snacks or sugary foods or processed foods or even foods sweetened with artificial sweeteners (they made you hungry too) to get fat. We eat them to solve an immediate need – hunger. But there is any number of other options that can fill that need without triggering the problems that come from really unhealthy foods.

It’s the same in business. We often take the easiest or most available or cheapest solution to solve an immediate need. Unfortunately, those “fast food” solutions only solve the problem in the near term and can often cause long-term damage. Just as with food, we need to be aware of our cravings and think before we eat. We need to consider all of the options, not just the “fast food” ways out. We need to choose more wisely, not just more expeditiously.

Make sense?

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Posts Of The Year – 2019 #4

I hope you all had a great Christmas holiday. It has become a tradition that I use the week between Christmas and New Year to recap the most-read posts that were written this past year. Today is the fourth most-read post. I published it last April 8 after seeing a photo of an old friend’s dad. While I have many great memories of his father, the one I wrote about is probably the most indelible. Enjoy.

My friend posted a picture of his father on social media the other day. Outside of my own father, he was probably the most influential male in my life as I was growing up in many ways. Aside from wondering why he’s aged and I haven’t as I saw the photo (that’s a joke, kids), it made me recall one thing that he did to teach my friend and me to be better baseball players: hitting curveballs.

My friend’s dad was no ordinary dad when it came to imparting that little piece of baseball knowledge either. He had tried out with the Yankees and the family lore is that had my friend’s mom not told him that she would walk on the marriage, he would have been signed and playing in Yankee Stadium. Obviously, when this guy tells you he’s going to teach you about curveballs, you listen.

For those of you that have never stood in against a pitcher with a lively curve, the pitch starts by heading at your head and breaks down and away from you. That’s what my friend’s father threw at us – pitches that started at our heads and broke in over the plate. Of course, once he felt we were getting complacent about standing in against the curve, he’d toss the odd pitch right at our heads to teach us to look for the rotation of the ball and to duck if it wasn’t going to curve. A fastball at your skull gets you focused very quickly!

Almost every player who makes the majors can hit fastballs. It’s the ones who can hit breaking pitches – sliders and curveballs – who become stars. It’s true in business as well. When things are going along according to plan and not diverging from the track they’re on, things are relatively easy to manage. Even if something appears dangerous (like a fastball heading for your ear) it’s relatively easy to get out of the way if you can see where things are heading.

Learning to hit business curveballs is something that you need to do if you’re going to elevate your game. You need to prepare for them by planning and recognizing that they’re going to show up from time to time. Your team needs to be ready, and you need to think about who can handle curveballs as you’re assembling that team.  People who are regimented and can’t deal with it when events start tracking differently are probably not your priority hires.

Mostly, you need to expect things to go wrong. After bailing out and hitting the dirt a couple of times, I realized that some attempted curveballs don’t break even when the rotation makes it look like they’re trying. It’s better to have to wash your uniform than to repair your skull. Your team needs to recognize that bailing out might be the smartest option when things begin to go awry. Watch out for those curves, learn to hit them out of the park, and your team can’t be beaten. Right?

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Eating In The Cafe Car

This will probably be the last original Foodie Friday post of this year (and decade!). I’m writing it whilst barreling north on a train. I’m a fan of train travel. Putting aside the environmental pluses, I think it’s more relaxing and more social than driving or taking the plane.

The train has a cafe car that offers up snacks, drinks, and food. The “food” consists of microwaved stuff – burgers, sausage and egg biscuits, wraps, etc. I think you can probably find most of the items at your local Costco or supermarket. The drinks are generally unhealthy sodas (yes there’s just water) and the snacks consist of candy bars and chips. It’s not the sort of stuff that you would choose if you had a choice, but when you’re on a 9-hour train trip you really don’t have much of one, which explains the line out the door.

Most of the time you would not catch me eating anything that’s offered here. Oh sure, I love me some sausage and egg on an English muffin, but I’ll usually have a multigrain muffin with plenty of fiber, not some white bread masquerading as a muffin. I might put some interesting cheese on mine and not the “cheese product” I’m sure is on this thing. Oh yes, of course, I had one. I’m hungry and they were out of the healthier options

The cafe car got me thinking about what sometimes happens in business. When businesspeople find themselves in an unusual circumstance they often will let their standards slide. I suspect they feel much as I do now – they solved the immediate issue (hunger in my case) but there is guilt and the knowledge that the “solution” they found might have created more problems than it solved.

If I had planned ahead, I’d have packed a decent snack and brought my own beverages. Money isn’t the issue – everything in the cafe car is reasonably priced (except the liquor – $8 for a drink? And I thought the airlines were committing skyway robbery!). The issue is solving my problem without lowering my standards. That takes planning. Is your business doing that?

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Filed under food, Helpful Hints, Reality checks

Looking From The Inside

While you’re busy reading this, I just might be anesthetized. Today’s screed was actually written yesterday while I was preparing for today’s colonoscopy. For those of you under 50 who have yet to enjoy the ride on what my friends and I call “The Silver Stallion”, you’re really not missing much. Anyone who has ever had one will tell you that the prep is worse than the actual procedure. Then again, how could it not be since you’re mostly unconscious during the exam?

The prep involves a day of a liquid-only diet. Clear broth, coffee or tea (NO milk though), sports drinks (nothing red or orange). You get the idea. At some point, you drink some nasty stuff that evacuates your bowels. It’s basically the worst case of diarrhea you can have without a trip to some restaurant with a D health rating.

OK, you get it. So why am I bring this up on a business blog? Well, there are lots of other ways to screen for colon cancer but colonoscopy is by far the best. If you’re over 50 you need to get one and keep getting them every 5-10 years (your doc will tell you how often). The reason it’s so good at detecting a problem is that you’re being examined from the inside out. It’s not looking at symptoms, it’s not guessing. It is a first-hand observation of what’s going on.

That’s something more businesspeople need to keep in mind. Too often we don’t do the first-hand investigation or look directly at what’s going on, preferring to look at data. Sometimes you need to speak to the people who are producing what’s reflected in the data. You need to reach out to customers, partners, suppliers, and employees. You need to get inside the business.

The other thing that goes on during a colonoscopy is that the doctor will remove any polyps that are found. Most of them are benign but can become something that’s problematic. The scope can spot even tiny ones. That’s another advantage of getting inside the business – you can often spot small issues and address them before they become big problems.

Unlike a colonoscopy, getting inside your business isn’t something that can happen every 5-10 years. It needs to occur regularly, with quarterly mini-reviews and annual exams. Like the colonoscopy, prep for that review makes people uncomfortable and unhappy. The good news is that the prep is worse than the exam, and isn’t it nice to know that you’re in good health?

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Another One Bites The Dust

You didn’t think that you were going to escape Foodie Friday without a missive from me, did you? This week our story is a little sad (OK, quite sad for those involved) but instructive as well.

You know that I’m a huge fan of sous vide cooking. In fact, I wrote all about those feelings just about 5 years ago after I received my first immersion circulator. To review, you French scholars out there will recognize that the term means “under vacuum.” You place whatever you’re cooking into a plastic bag, extract the air, and seal it. The bag (or bags) is placed in a water bath. The immersion circulator holds the water at a steady temperature which is the desired end temperature of the food.

All those years ago, immersion circulators cost around $1,000 and were not really marketed to the home cook. I remember watching the Top Chef contestants using them but not fully understanding that this was a tool that could be widely marketed to the home market as well if the cost could be brought down.

Enter our subject today. I’ll let TechCrunch take it from here:

Founded in 2012, Nomiku became a plucky Silicon Valley darling by bringing affordable sous vide cooking to home kitchens…The company was able to bring a cost-prohibitive cooking technology down to an affordable price point, only to see the market flooded by competitors.

This is a perfect case study for businesspeople. First, the company was founded to solve a problem the founders had. Importantly, they realized that many others – home cooks who were aware of sous vide but who couldn’t afford a $1,000 kitchen toy – had the same problem. They raised money (on Kickstarter), solved the engineering and production problems, and produced a beautiful product for $300.

Unfortunately, an immersion circulator isn’t really a defensible idea. Sure, you might be able to protect certain elements but as most computer manufacturers found out during the PC boom, there’s kind of a race to the bottom. I actually have two immersion circulators in my home now and neither costs more than $200. The Nomiku is still listed as costing more.

How does Apple manage to market products that cost significantly more than its competitors? Because they differentiate the bulk of their products. The function differently. They’ve got better security. For the most part, an immersion circulator does what it does. Sure, bells and whistles such as Bluetooth and timers can help justify a higher price, but sadly, not in this case.

Could they have foreseen that a lab products company would migrate into making products for cooks? Who knows, but it does remind us that having a great idea and even great execution isn’t necessarily enough. If the idea is great, competitors will be at your door quite soon. You must always be looking at how to stay one step ahead while building up defensibility on your rear. Easier said than done, I know, but the business world is unforgiving as these folks found out.

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Filed under Consulting, food, Reality checks

We’re Not Stupid

I do quite a bit of headshaking these days. We won’t talk about the political stuff that causes me to do so but there are just as many things outside of politics to trigger the behavior. I’d like to talk about one of them today because it’s instructive for anyone in business.

One term that’s become en vogue is “alternative facts.” You know what I mean – the dissemination of pieces of information that are mostly or completely untrue. Orwell termed them “doublethink“. I term them lies.

What brought this on? I subscribe to a bunch of magazines – golf publications, cooking publications, and several others. This time of year, in particular, I get snail mail with offers to send a gift subscription. Some ask me to renew or extend my existing subscription and offer to send a free gift subscription to someone as a thank you. So far, so good. These offers are usually clear and only mildly annoying.

Then there is one publication that just doesn’t get it. It’s part of a larger family of magazines and I wonder if what I’m about to describe goes on at the other publications as well. An envelope shows up stamped first notice. I’m told my subscription is expiring and I should renew. A few weeks later comes the second notice. Last week, I got some mail marked THIRD NOTICE in large letters outside the envelope. Inside was the same notice I’d already received twice – my subscription was going to expire (aren’t we all?) and I need to renew ASAP for uninterrupted service.

Here’s the problem. I just renewed this subscription last year for several years. Just to be sure, I found the last issue and sure enough, there on the mailing label was the expiration date. It’s January alright. January 2021. I’ve got a year to go. I wanted to confirm this so I logged on to my account on the magazine’s website. My account lets me use the site’s “recipe box” which I do quite a bit but for some inexplicable reason, it’s not linked to my magazine subscription. When I click on the “manage account” link, up pops a new tab asking me to renew. Again, there’s an assumption that you’re dumb and will just renew because a very in-your-face page is telling you that you need to. In order to see your current account, you need to click through on the FAQ link at the foot of the page and scroll until you find a link to “log in to your account”. Of course, when I finally found this and did so, I confirmed that I had a year to go on my subscription.

Putting the awful user experience aside, what’s bugging me is that these publishers think their readers are dumb. They seem to believe that sending out misleading notices with “alternative facts” will lead to renewals. I wish I could say they were unique but they’re not. I’m sure you get the same kinds of “notices” that I get. My home warranty is expiring (I don’t have one), I can have a “free security system” (it’s far from free), and on and on.

Companies that think we’re stupid deserve to be out of business. I’m well aware of Mencken’s statement that “No one in this world, so far as I know … has ever lost money by underestimating the intelligence of the great masses of the plain people”. We need, instead, to think like David Ogilvy: “The customer is not a moron. She’s your wife”. Putting aside that deceptive marketing just might be illegal, doesn’t it bother you to be thought of as an idiot?

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