Category Archives: Thinking Aloud

Sampuru

This Foodie Friday, the topic is sampuru. No, you probably don’t call anything by that name but you’ve seen it. It’s the fake food you often see in the lobby or window of Japanese restaurants. Great sampuru is incredibly realistic and can negate the need even to look at a menu. Like many seemingly simple things (such as making the rice for sushi), sampuru artists require years of training.

Typically for this space, as I was thinking about sampuru, a business thought came to me. Fake, plastic food has its business counterpart although they’re not called sampuru. I call them empty suits, but I’m not sure we should limit the term to people.

Your typical empty suit, like great fake food, gives the appearance of being real and nourishing. The reality is that they look great but can be toxic if ingested. In fact, I think they’re easier to spot than great sampuru. Ask an empty suit for an opinion and it will either be the same as either the boss’s or of whomever in the room they’re trying to please if they have an opinion at all. You see, empty suits rarely have enough knowledge about a topic to give a well-reasoned opinion about anything. They may rattle off a number of industry buzzwords but if you try to dissect what it is they’re saying it becomes obvious that, as Gertrude Stein said about Oakland, there’s no there there.

Oddly enough, I think entire businesses can be sampuru. Coincidentally, I ate at a Japanese restaurant the other evening that I would call an empty suit. It looked fine – a sushi bar, teppanyaki tables, etc., but the food was nondescript, the service was lackadaisical, and the teppan chef I saw was just barely going through the motions. It was a sampuru – a plastic model of a business that looked like the real thing but wasn’t even close to being it.

We need to make sure our businesses don’t fall into the trap of being sampuru – of looking like we’re fresh and flourishing when, in fact, we’re dead and toxic. As executives, we need to stay informed and not be afraid to offer our own opinions about things. We’ll be wrong sometimes but by being true to ourselves maybe we’ll also advance the conversation to new, more profitable ground. You with me?

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Filed under food, Thinking Aloud

Upon A Solid Foundation

Chuck Berry passed this weekend. When I heard the news I mentioned it to a younger friend who asked “who?” That made me a little sad, but it also made me think about today’s topic, as did a couple of other things that transpired over the last few days.

Publicity photo of Chuck Berry.

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

First, Mr. Berry. Chuck Berry, as you might have learned over the last couple of days of news, is one of the founding fathers of rock and roll. While you might not know him if you’re younger than about 50, you certainly know his music. Johnny B. Goode is a song any young rock musician has played, and it was a concert standard of dozens of bands from The Grateful Dead to Jimi Hendrix to The Rolling Stones. The Beatles had hits with Roll Over Beethoven and Rock And Roll Music. Many other bands either had hits covering one of his songs or stealing one of his songs and making one of their own out of it (The Beach Boys Surfin’ USA is Sweet Little Sixteen reworked, for example).

Anyone who has strapped on an electric guitar and rocked out sits on the shoulders of Chuck Berry, among others. Heck, he was a big enough influence on this kid that when I got my first electric guitar as I turned 13, I wanted a Gibson ES-335, the kind that Chuck Berry played.

It’s not just music history that got me thinking. The men’s and women’s golf tours each played tournaments this weekend that saluted key individuals in their history. The LPGA played the Founders Cup, which was established to honor the 13 original Founders of the LPGA. Several of those women are still living and sat by the 18th green. As the players finished, each one went to thank the founders personally. The PGA Tour contested The Arnold Palmer Invitational, a tournament hosted in years past by Mr. Palmer but which has morphed into a tribute to one of the men who made professional golf what it is today. Which leads to today’s topic.

What each of these things reminds us is that none of us stand alone in business. Our success rests upon a solid foundation, one that was built by many people. Our parents, our teachers, and our mentors in business are the obvious ones. There were also those who preceded us in our field, blazing the trail and making mistakes so that we don’t have to. You might wake up with a great idea for a new business or product, but I guarantee the seeds were planted by those who went before.

Maybe today is a good day to think about and examine the foundation upon which our success rests? It’s an even better idea to thank someone who built yours, don’t you think?

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Filed under Thinking Aloud, What's Going On

How To Cure A Headache

My introduction to the business side of media came when I was a teenager. My dad was a television rep who sold time to ad agencies. Broadcasting Magazine showed up every week and once in a while, he’d have a Nielsen book in his briefcase for me to peruse. From my perspective, the business seemed pretty simple. The seller and buyer agreed on a price based on how many people they thought might be watching and how narrowly defined the parameters were with respect to when the ad could run. In other words, they negotiated and measured based on ratings, rate, and rotation.

Drawing "THE CLUSTER HEADACHE" Subti...

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

When I actually followed my father into the media business, not much had changed. Sure, the numbers were more demographically-based instead of on household counts, but the business was pretty much the 3 R’s. Not anymore. In fact, a recent study by ID Comms found that most advertisers see media as a complex headache. It is pretty overwhelming now, both from the perspective of available media options as well as the addition of digital channels such as social media. The fact that a huge percentage of media is now bought programmatically through systems that are often rife with fraud and lacking in transparency adds to the headache.

I don’t think it’s the complexity of the media world that’s causing the headache. I think it’s a misplaced emphasis on buying efficiency at the expense of both strategic thinking and measuring results on things other than easily-manipulated metrics such as CPM. If a campaign makes the cash register ring, it’s effective. If it doesn’t, what good is it to have delivered something useless in a highly-efficient manner?

I’ve spoken with friends on both the sales and buying side of the equation. There seems to be universal frustration but not much in the way of solutions. It really needs to come from the people who control the purses – the clients. They need to stop thinking about CPM’s as a measure of efficiency (at least when it comes to digital, anyway) and place a lot more emphasis on strategy. Is the register ringing? Is the phone? Are there more interactions on social even if the number of “likes” isn’t rising? Is there a buzz about your brand? Those are the modern metrics that are relevant in the long-term and that kind of thinking can cure a media headache many folks are now experiencing. You agree?

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Filed under Consulting, Thinking Aloud, digital media

My Totally Fake Life

I came across an article last week that I found disturbing. I don’t think it’s news to any of you there that it’s possible to buy fake followers on the various social media platforms. You can buy hundreds or thousands of “followers” on Instagram, Twitter, or Facebook fairly cheaply. I had assumed that this was something that some (dumb) businesspeople did to make their metrics look better. More on that in a second. The article set me straight.

What it said was that researchers at:

Huron University College in Ontario, Canada, who surveyed around 450 participants ages 18-29 through an online polling platform, and found that 15% admitted to buying “likes” from Web sites for their Instagram profiles…25% of respondents said they engaged in digital plastic surgery before posting photos.

Yikes! I guess these people figure that by having large numbers of people following them on some platform that they appear to be more influential. The reality is exactly the opposite because it takes very little effort to figure out that those people are fakes. Running a Twitter handle through Twitter Audit showed me that some person who claimed his million plus followers as a reason to do business with his had, in fact, 96% fakes in that million. It’s ego gratification, the same reason why people lie about their age or their weight or name drop, and it makes for a serious level of insecurity. And yes, there are other tools for other platforms to help spot fakes.

The same can be said when we do this in our business profiles. Some warped social media person will buy likes to show the boss that they are becoming more popular and that the efforts they’re making to garner new followers are paying off. Of course, engagement rates will drop off to nothing (those fake names don’t interact), and in fact, could do your brand harm by becoming spammy through your account.

It’s a little frightening that many of us feel the need to live a totally fake life online. The study found that 31% of respondents said they edited out all the boring details to make their life seem more exciting, and 14% said they specifically craft their profile page to make it seem like their social life is much more active than it actually is. Maybe it’s possible that the people who are posting the most are actually living the least glamorous lives?

Maybe one benefit of getting older on a personal level is the realization that the only one with whom we’re competing is ourselves. More “stuff” – cars, clothes, or followers – can mean less happiness. On a business level, more can be great but fake never is. Your thoughts?

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Filed under Huh?, Reality checks, Thinking Aloud

Foaming At the Mouth

This Foodie Friday, let’s talk about foams for a minute. Food foams, that is, and not the thick ones such as whipped cream, marshmallows, or even cake. I mean the foams that have come out of molecular gastronomy and are made out of mushrooms or parmesan cheese or just about anything else. Throw some stabilizing agent (agar, lecithin,etc.) into a liquid, grab the old immersion blender and voila: foam.

Let me give you two prominent cooks takes on them. The first is Gordon Ramsay:

If I want foam I will stick to my bubble bath after the end of a long week. Watching foam sit on a plate and 30 seconds later it starts to disintegrate and it starts to look like toxic scum on a stagnant pool of crap. I don’t want to eat foams. It’s not good.

Then there is Alton Brown‘s take:

Don’t think you can replace cooking technique with throwing a bunch of flavors on top of something. Any more than you can making it into a caviar. Or making it into a foam. If I live the rest of my culinary life without a seeing another foam, I’ll be OK. I’m sick to death of foam. What does foam do? Cover our bad cooking, by and large.

I must admit that I’m not particularly a fan of foams on my plate but I find the above two quotes of interest to us today because each also contains a business point. Chef Ramsay rightfully points out that when customers purchase a product they expect it to perform and endure. If you have kids, you know the experience of toys being destroyed by lunch time on Christmas. It’s almost as if the toy makers never put the thing into the hands of a 4-year-old to test endurance. But many of us have had the same experience with tech toys and other products. We need to build our products and services to last.

The second quote points out that customers aren’t easily distracted. A nicely flavored foam can’t hide a poorly cooked protein underneath it. It’s great that we design digital products and physical products to look nice but consumers value substance over style in the long run. Just as diners order the protein and not the foam, consumers are focused on the main promise the product is making and not on how pretty it is.

Foams add flavor without adding substance. I think we all need a lot more substance in this world. You?

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Filed under food, Thinking Aloud

It Just Works

I’m old enough and digital enough to have used the first IBM PC and VisiCalc. It wasn’t the easiest thing to use but it pretty much was the only thing. DOS led to other operating systems, primarily Windows, that enabled all of us to work more efficiently. Well, that is, unless we were busy figuring out why we couldn’t print or why we were suddenly deluged with pop-up ads via malware.

English: IBM Personal Computer model 5150 with...

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

That was always the biggest appeal of Apple products to me. They just worked. My primary computer is a MacBook Air and the thought of going back to a Windows environment, no matter how good the reviews are on Windows 10, is dismaying. I’ve had to help friends with their Win10 issues and it certainly doesn’t “just work.” Then again, neither does my MacBook any longer. Sure, it’s nice that the OS upgrades every year (for free!) but I find myself diagnosing problems constantly now (wifi drops, SD cards being ejected at random, and more!).

My next computer will be a Chromebook; specifically a Chromebook with a touchscreen that can serve as a tablet. Chromebooks do just work. They are malware free. Think about how you work now. Most of it is probably via a web browser and in the cloud – my work certainly is for the most part. And they’re inexpensive – I can buy two decent Chromebooks for the price of a new MacBook or a touchscreen Windows machine. But what does this have to do with your business?

The bulk of customers wants that “it just works” experience no matter what you’re selling. They want their problems solved with the least hassle and for the best value. Notice I didn’t say for the lowest price. Just as there are high-end Chromebooks costing more than some Apple computers, so too is there a segment of buyer that want the high-end product and can afford to pay more if they perceive better quality, better service, or maybe a boost to their self-esteem (think luxury cars). But that’s not everyone.

If you want to brag about your computer’s specs then Chromebooks probably aren’t for you. Honestly, they’re not for everyone – you can’t do serious gaming or Photoshop or video editing. If you’re the type that likes to tweak your settings until they’re just right, you probably want to stick with something else. You need to think about your business in this context too. Are you for some very specialized, narrow audiences or are you for the bulk of the consumer base? If the latter, I’d suggest you focus on the “it just works” experience because history shows that’s how the best businesses succeed. You with me?

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Filed under Consulting, Helpful Hints, Thinking Aloud

Unlimited Gall

You might be aware of the battle going on in the wireless provider space which revolves around “unlimited” service. Yes, I meant to put unlimited in quotes because as it turns out there is no such thing. I’ll explain the details in a second but what this represents is mirrored in other businesses too and is a ridiculous bit of anti-customer behavior in which none of us should engage. Let’s see what you think.

First, the phone war. Verizon and T-Mobile are the primary protagonists. Verizon announced it was bringing back unlimited data so you could stream video on your mobile device to your heart’s content. Of course, as one article reminded us, unlimited is actually not:

“Unlimited” data also continues to be a misnomer. If you use more than 22GB of data, Verizon may throttle your connection. You also only get the $80/month price if you sign up for Autopay. If you don’t, it will cost $85/month. While this includes the $20 fee for adding a line, it doesn’t include your phone’s payment plan, so if you want to pay monthly to buy a phone, it will cost more.

T-Mobile responded with changes to their own so-called unlimited data plan. While the plan was unlimited previously, it added on charges for video quality over 480p (that’s not great). It also charged you extra to use your phone as a high-speed (meaning 3G quality) hotspot. It slowed the data down before. In the new plan, those limits are gone but T-Mobile says subscribers who use more than 28GB of data in a given month may see their speeds reduced due to “prioritization” in congested areas. In short, using the word “unlimited” is crap. There are still limits, and if you’re a consumer you have the right to expect that there really aren’t.

The phone companies (and Sprint and AT&T aren’t much better) aren’t the only businesses that do a form of bait and switch. It’s no secret that what you’re quoted as an airfare is also only part of the story since there are fees for bags, boarding passes, seats, and just about anything else depending on your carrier. The airlines say the fees are optional. Yeah, sure. And pay the fee at the airport and there is a fee to pay the fee!

Ever buy tickets to a show online? Convenience (whose convenience?) fees, printing fees, etc. Ever book a hotel room? Resort fees, safe fees, service fees, and more. My bank charges my business account a monthly admin fee even though they make money off the money I have in the bank. My cable operator charges me for sports channels I can’t refuse to take.

All of this is a long-winded way of saying that businesses need to be upfront about their true costs to consumers or face a backlash when their dishonesty is discovered. I’d much rather know the true cost of something than to feel as if I’d been ripped off later. Wouldn’t you? Isn’t that how we need to treat our customers?

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Filed under Huh?, Reality checks, Thinking Aloud