Category Archives: Reality checks

Symptoms, Diseases, And The Long Term

We’re into that time of the year when corporations are reporting their results for the last quarter. I tend to look at any single quarter’s results as a data point and since I’m a believer in watching things through the lens of the long-term, I mostly ignore anything strongly negative or positive unless it’s part of a long-term trend.

I’m sure it’s not a shock to any of you that the cable TV provider business is in a downward trend. I’ve written about this before and you might be one of the millions of folks who have cut their cable cord and gone pure streaming or supplement your streaming with an HD antenna to get your local TV over the air (everything old is new again!). Charter Communications is one of those cable TV providers who is watching their user base deteriorate. This last quarter, the company’s video customers sank by 150,000 subscribers, now totaling 15.8 million. At the same time, their Internet customers grew 221,000 to a total of 24.2 million, which also mirrors what’s going on elsewhere and the aforementioned trends. At the same time, these distributors are getting hit with increased costs for programming – what the cable networks charge the delivery guys to carry their programming (and in theory, the availability of which is why people pay for cable in the first place).

What the CEO said in making the results announcement, however, doesn’t mirror other CEO’s thinking and that’s what I want to highlight today:

Asked why the company doesn’t raise prices to cover increased programming costs, CEO Tom Rutledge said, “If you do a 10% programming price increase and lose 10% of your customers, you don’t really get anywhere and yet you’ve alienated a lot of people. In fact, that’s actually happening and has been happening. I expect continuous fighting for the foreseeable future.”

Mr. Rutledge gets it.  He is not confusing a symptom (customer loss amid increasing costs) with the disease (a rapidly changing business model reflecting consumer resentment at the high monthly out of pocket costs). Rasing prices would, in my opinion, accelerate the negative trend. It would stabilize earnings and make investors happy in the short term, but it’s not sustainable and would ultimately result in disaster.

More of us in business need to think that way. What’s a symptom and what’s the disease it reflects? What’s the right play for the long term even if it hurts in the short term? Does that make sense?

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Filed under Consulting, Reality checks

The Fear Barrier

I spent last week at a conference of franchise consultants and franchisors. If you’ve read this blog before you’ll know that one of the recurring themes is the need to be learning constantly and going to meetings like that one is one of the best ways to educate yourself. After all, who knows more about that challenges that you face in your business than other folks who are dealing with the same issues?

One issue that came up a lot in my conversations with my peers is the issue of fear. We’re in the business of helping people realize their dream of business ownership. We find out their “why” and then find businesses – franchises – that match their goals and their budgets. In the process, we end up sending them a lot of very specific information about potential investments and it’s at that point that the fear barrier sometimes kicks in.

Imagine that you’re looking at several opportunities that could make your dream come true. You have the resources to make it happen. The next step is for you to speak directly to the development people at the brand and to continue your investigation. What often happens at this point is that people “go dark.” They don’t respond to phone calls or emails. I suspect that it isn’t that they’re not interested but, rather, that they’re TOO interested and suddenly things are VERY real. The notion of quitting your job and investing your savings in something completely new can be terrifying.

The people with whom we’re having these discussions identified themselves. They filled out a request to chat with someone about franchise opportunities. They WANT to make this happen, or at least they want enough information to see if that’s what they want. I’ve had people say they’ve reviewed the information and a company I’ve found for them isn’t quite right. That’s fine: we keep looking (I represent over 500 different brands). They’re not unafraid but they’re not letting the fear paralyze them. They use it as motivation. They believe that they can change their lives for the better and 94% of the time they will be right (that’s the percentage of franchisees that consider themselves successful).

No matter whether you’re looking at franchises or at changing companies or jobs or careers, the fear barrier will be there. The people who are truly successful – the ones who realize their dream and find self-fulfillment – are the ones that break through the fear barrier, not waiting for the “right time” or accepting the things in their lives that are really unacceptable to them when they step back and think about it. Is that person you?

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Filed under Helpful Hints, Reality checks

Harder Than It Looks

It’s Foodie Friday and yesterday I took my old beast of a smoker out for a July 4th spin. Of all the things I transported from the wilds of Connecticut to sunny (read that as hotter than blazes) North Carolina, The Beast was probably the most difficult thing to move. It was the subject of a Foodie Friday post all on its own a couple of years back. As I described it at the time:

Photo by Jaden Hatch

The Beast is made of heavy steel that’s quite thick and it weighs well over 100 pounds even without my usual load of meats inside. As I was cleaning up the old Rancho Deluxe to get ready for its sale, the smoker was one of the very few things that I was adamant about saving for the move.

Yesterday I fired it up and did some racks of ribs, some chicken and some sausage. They came out quite well, thanks. What also came out was a reminder that something so simple – putting meat into a box and letting it cook slowly – is way harder and less simple than it looks.

First, prepping the meat. One might just salt and pepper the ribs and toss them in. Yes, one COULD do that, but it would be a disservice to the ribs and your palate. What’s less easy is removing the membrane and assembling a nice dry rub of several spices to bring out the flavor of the wood smoke and the pork. Similarly, you COULD just plop the whole chicken on a rack and let it smoke or you could halve it, brine it, season it properly and then proceed.

Next is cooking. Good BBQ is NOT a passive activity. Don’t let the guy sitting next to his cooker sucking down a beer mislead you. He’s there to keep a watchful eye on the on temperature, adjusting the air intake to raise or lower the temperature in the box and to add fuel when needed. I find that checking every 30 minutes or so at a minimum is critical.

Wood chips are a must. You can’t toss them on the fire – they won’t smoke, they’ll burn. You need to soak them after you think about what kind of wood chips to use. Hickory? Mesquite? Fruitwood like apple or peach?

The point I’m trying to make here is that something as simple as smoking a piece of meat is much harder than it looks if you’re going to do it right. So are many things in business. Assembling a team and keeping it functioning at a high level. Handling customer service issues.  Managing capital and cash flow. Every one of those things as well as many others as much harder than they might appear. What each of us needs to do is never underestimate the difficulty of anything until we’ve mastered it. That mindset makes us read, learn, and stay humble.

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Filed under food, Reality checks, Thinking Aloud

GSD

We’re starting down that road to another presidential election here in the US. There are a lot of people who want the job, apparently although having watched my way through “The West Wing” multiple times I’m not sure why. The plane maybe?

No, we’re not heading into the world of politics but one thing that struck me as I have been watching the various candidates making their cases is that there are an awful lot of good ideas being tossed around. Every candidate has a grand solution to one or more of the many things that can be improved here in the US of A. Of course, so did nearly every other person who has run for the office over the years. What they found is something that’s useful to any of us in business: good ideas aren’t enough.

I’m sure you’ve had many groundbreaking ideas in your business life. Maybe you even got the chance to try and bring them to life. The reality is that a good number of those ideas withered away because the strength of an idea isn’t really enough to make it happen. You need buy-in from all the stakeholders which means you also need some good persuasion skills. You might need money which means you need to be able to justify your brainstorm in dollars and cents for the money mavens. And of course, you need the leadership skills to make others understand your vision and work hard to implement it even if the value of that idea isn’t necessarily apparent to them until the very end.

Being great means Getting Stuff Done or as Elvis used to have on his belt buckle, TCB – Taking Care of Business. I had a boss who used to tell me I had 100 ideas a day and 99 were pure crap. I had to learn how to get that one great idea done. He was right (well, maybe more than 1 a day was pretty good). I became a much better manager when I learned not to fixate on the idea but to pay attention to the process so the idea could bloom. Yes, it’s like a garden – the great idea is just the seed and without a proper environment and lots of care it will wither and die.

So now you know that. I wonder how many of the candidates do?

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Filed under Helpful Hints, Reality checks

We’ve Been Robbed

An important, thought-provoking piece today from Roger McNamee in the NY Times. It’s entitled A Brief History of How Your Privacy Was Stolen and it raises some disturbing issues which concern – or should concern – us all. Mr. McNamee is a long-time tech investor and author. “Zucked: Waking Up to the Facebook Catastrophe” is his book and I think the title gives you a sense about his concerns, especially since he was an early investor in and advisor to Facebook.

This is the gist of his position:

Why it is legal for service providers to comb our messages and documents for economically valuable data? Why is it legal for third parties to trade in our most private information, including credit card transactions, location and health data, and browsing history? Why is it legal to gather any data at all about minors? Why is it legal to trade predictions of our behavior?

Good questions, and if you’re not concerned by the answers or the implications of the questions themselves, here are a few things to consider. First, go to Facebook, click under “settings” and look at the “Ads” tab. Scroll down a bit and open up the line that says “advertisers and businesses.” There you will see a list of all the companies that uploaded your email or phone onto Facebook so they could serve you ads. The companies listed have run ads in the last 7 days containing your information. Scroll down and keep opening the “see more” rows. I quit when I got over 500 companies. Most were companies – car dealers and realtors – with which I’d had no dealings. Why do they have my information? Of course, I’m aware of list brokers but why would a car dealer in Arizona pay for my information? That’s their issue; mine is that they have it.

I’m willing to bet that you’ve given Facebook and others way more information than I have. I use the DuckDuckGo search engine so my search history is private. I’ve locked down my browser so the “bugs” from Facebook, Twitter, and others don’t follow me. You can start by disabling the “ad settings” on the Facebook “ad” tab you’re on. That’s only a small part of the issue.

Anyone who is paying attention to China has seen the rise of a totalitarian “Big Brother” state built around constant surveillance. In 2015, the Chinese Ministry of Public Security announced it was looking to implement an “omnipresent, completely connected, always on and fully controllable” network using facial recognition systems and CCTV hardware. It’s largely in place. What does this have to do with you?

Google, Facebook, and others know pretty much everything about you. Where you’ve been, your friends, your shopping habits, etc. McNamee’s point that “Platforms are under no obligation to protect user privacy. They are free to directly monetize the information they gather by selling it to the highest bidder” underscores the problem. What happens when the highest bidder has nefarious intent? What if it’s the government? What if your insurance company wants to raise your rate because you’re buying fast-food and cookies?

I make it a point to do unpredictable things every so often to mess with whatever algorithm is paying attention. That can be as simple as shopping for products in which I have no interest or “liking” something that I really don’t. Sometimes I wish that we could put the tech genie back in the bottle, even if it’s a bottle I had a hand in opening in some small way.

Read the McNamee piece and tell me what you think, ok?

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Filed under digital media, Huh?, Reality checks

Sharing Isn’t Caring

Suppose you are depressed or maybe you want to quit a bad habit – smoking, for example. Well, of course, there are apps to help you fight depression or to quit smoking. Maybe you want a discount on your car insurance so you agree to install what the industry calls a “telematics device.” As one report explained, these things report when the car was used, distance driven, and time spent driving. They also want to know how fast a driver typically drives and any incidents of hard braking, both of which are indicators that the driver takes risks and doesn’t pay attention. Finally, and perhaps most controversially, the devices can track a car’s location.

Since you’re a fairly literate person, digitally speaking, you know the apps collect some data and obviously so does a tracking device. What you don’t know is what happens to the data that the apps collect. If you go through the app’s privacy policies (you know – the thing you clicked through when you signed up), you’ll probably find that the developer might share data with third parties. And, in fact, a study just released shows that of 36 top-ranked apps for depression and smoking cessation available in public app stores, 29 transmitted data to services provided by Facebook or Google, but only 12 accurately disclosed this in a privacy policy.

Does this concern you? It should. It is not difficult at all for someone who has “non-PII” – anonymized personal information – to trace it back to a real person with a name, address, and other information. How many auto insurance companies also offer life insurance? How many share data – even anonymized data – with health insurers. And wouldn’t those health insurers love to know if you think you’re depressed, as would a life insurance company? Am I paranoid? Yes indeed, and you should be too.

As it turns out, while many of us are more wary about what companies are doing with our data, we’re still not DOING much about it. As eMarketer reports, Internet users are clearing cookies and sharing less on social media. Ad blockers continue to gain popularity. But nearly one-third of US internet users are still willing to sacrifice privacy for convenience.

Clearing cookies, using a VPN, making sure that apps don’t get permissions that they don’t need (why does a flashlight app need your contacts?), and other things can help but at the core of this issue is many companies’ philosophy to beg forgiveness than to ask permission. They have a laser-focus on making money and are woefully blind to their users’ concerns. That’s what really concerns me. You?

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Filed under Helpful Hints, Huh?, Reality checks

Your Ideas Suck

One thing I’ve done over my decade in consulting is to go to tech events. Many of these attract dozens of budding entrepreneurs as well as we consultant types who are always on the lookout for a new client. Inevitably, as you’re making small talk and new connections, someone will tell you about their earth-shattering, world-changing brilliant idea. All they need is some seed money. Most of the time, their ideas…well…suck. Let me explain why.

First of all, they can’t explain the problem that they’re solving. They have a vague idea of who might have the problem but they can’t really explain what the problem is since they’re not the customer. Then they can’t exactly explain how they’ll scale – how they will attract a large enough customer base to get them to positive cash-flow and profitability. Lastly, they can’t explain the revenue model – how they will monetize the enterprise.

Major suckitude, in other words.

If you can’t explain how your idea takes in someone’s money – an investor’s or a customer’s – and spits profit out the other end, you’re in big trouble. An idea isn’t a business, you see.

One thing I’ve learned in consulting on franchises is that a lot of food franchises want you to have some food experience. While specific industry experience is less of a requirement in other categories, having relevant experience is a huge help everywhere, even if it’s just demonstrating skills that can help in your new business. If you don’t have the basic skills you need to germinate your idea – leadership skills, sales skills among them – or relevant industry experience, you are going to fail. Was that mean? OK, it was mean, but your idea still sucks because you are hanging it out there all on its own with nothing to support it. No money. No experience. No skills.

By the way. Most people who have been around for a while (your potential investors and others) can figure out very quickly if your buzzword-laden pitch is BS. Dressing up your sucky idea with a fancy presentation laden with jargon is lipstick on a pig.

What ideas don’t suck? The best businesses come from someone trying to solve their own problem and having the business acumen to grow that solution into something that can benefit others if the problem is a big enough one. There is a plan to make money, acquire customers, and generate a profit. Got an idea with those things? THAT doesn’t suck!

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Filed under Consulting, Reality checks