Category Archives: Thinking Aloud

Phones Up!

I went to a startup conference yesterday and something that I saw going on made me feel…well…old. But it also got me thinking.

I don’t know about you, but I like to take notes at these sorts of things. I’ve always done it, even before my brain stopped remembering what is was I had wanted when I’d walked into the kitchen to get something. When you’re getting hit up with a lot of interesting stuff on various topics all at once, I find that notes read later after the heat of battle had subsided help with context and perspective.

So there I sat, pen in hand, paper on lap. I didn’t bring a laptop although, in retrospect, that should probably be my habit in the future since my handwriting gets so little use that it’s deteriorated. It’s now less legible than most physicians’. Maybe that’s because I do use my laptop for notes when I’m in the office.

On came the keynote speaker. Several folks in the crowd looked as I did – pen, paper, and open ears. Other had their laptops fired up. In general, they were younger and geekier than the pen/paper crowd. But then came the phone folks.

As I surveyed the room, each time a slide changed, up went dozens of phones. They were taking pictures of the slides, not of the speaker. In fact, note-taking via photograph seemed to be more the mode than the way I was doing things. Combine those photos with some notes (there are apps that let you annotate the photos with notes!) and you’re all set.

So here are a few random thoughts:

  • How many speakers are optimizing their slides for photo note taking? Very few, I’ll bet, yet that was by far the preferred method of note taking in the room yesterday.
  • Has anyone studied the differences in remembering and/or understanding when you don’t actually write the notes? To this day, if I want to remember something I write it down. Not because I want to refer to the note but because the act of writing it down makes me remember it.
  • Not one speaker offered to email their deck to the room. Obviously, that’s not a big deal if it’s a panel discussion, but there were several presentations. That’s a great way to gather a lot of data – who was there, for example – that might help you sell, hire, or find new connections. Maybe a missed opportunity.
  • Kids in schools use computers almost exclusively in some places. I know the schools will sometimes teach Word and Excel (or their non-MS counterparts) but are they teaching One Note/Evernote/etc.? Learning how to learn is awfully important, right?
  • Our brains are wired differently here in the digital age than they were 30 years ago. Like everything else, notetaking has evolved, and maybe not for the better. What do you think? How do you take notes?
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Filed under Helpful Hints, Thinking Aloud

Woebuck

Sad news about Sears today. An American institution, they filed for bankruptcy in order to restructure the company. They will close 142 unprofitable stores near the end of the year. Liquidation sales at these stores are expected to begin shortly. This is in addition to the previously announced closure of 46 unprofitable stores that is expected to be completed by next month.

The press release says that “The Chapter 11 process will give Holdings the flexibility to strengthen its balance sheet, enabling the Company to accelerate its strategic transformation, continue right-sizing its operating model, and return to profitability.” I guess the question I’d ask is what the heck has taken so long? When I was a kid, the Sears catalog was a 500-page wish book. Everything from clothing to tools to appliances and damn near anything else was in the catalog or the store. At one point you could even buy a prefabricated house kit. They sold great appliances (built by Whirlpool) and even better tools (also built by others). They did very smart things like label grades of product “good” “better” and “best” using brand names.  They were Amazon long before Amazon was a gleam in Jeff Bezos’ eye.

So what happened? Well, technology did but that’s only part of the story. This is a perfect example of what can happen when any of us fail to recognize the fundamental changes happening in business – all business. Obviously, online commerce happened but Sears was in decline in the early 1990’s as Walmart took over the title of largest US retailer. Then the little wave became a tsunami, as consumers fundamentally changed their behavior, becoming more price sensitive, doing more research and shopping online, and the shift away from the mall sped up.

You might not remember this, but Sears was an investor in Prodigy, one of the original online services. They jumped out of the digital service in 1996, however. One can only wonder what might have been had they stuck with it and learned from it. Even though walled-garden services died as the internet grew, there was a lot to learn. Remember that Amazon didn’t begin to sell beyond books until around 2000. Why did they bail? To get back to what they knew best – retail (they also sold off their interest in brokerages and real estate companies they owned).

This is an excellent summary from Investopedia:

It would be easy to read this story as a triumph of e-commerce, or to reflect on the irony that Sears was a first-mover when it came to online shopping, with its proto-internet joint venture Prodigy. But even recently, Sears has been ahead of the curve in that area. According to Bloomberg, Lampert “showered” the online division with resources while the rest meleed over a shrinking pie.

Nor did competition with Amazon alone precipitate Sears’ decline. When sales and profits began to fade, in the mid-2000s, other big box retailers—particularly Walmart—were thriving. In 2011, the year Sears lost over $3.1 billion, Walmart made $17.1 billion.

Perhaps the might-have-been next Warren Buffett should have listened to the original, who told University of Kansas students in 2005, “Eddie is a very smart guy, but putting Kmart and Sears together is a tough hand. Turning around a retailer that has been slipping for a long time would be very difficult. Can you think of an example of a retailer that was successfully turned around?”

This is a story of a series of failures. It’s also a cautionary tale to any of us who live and work in these changing times. Brick and mortar stores still make up the vast majority of retail sales in this country yet the country’s largest retailers failed. Greed? Ignorance? Stupidity? What are your thoughts?

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Filed under Huh?, Thinking Aloud, What's Going On

It’s Not Fair

This Foodie Friday sees the opening of the North Carolina State Fair. Until I moved here, I had no idea that state fairs were such a big deal. I mean, I knew that we had them up north, but they always seemed to take place in some remote part of the state and I don’t recall ever having attended one.

Image courtesy NC St. Fair/Facebook

That changed when I headed south. This fair is a big deal and it’s right here in the middle of the state. Last year, over a million people attended and the day I went, it was jammed. While some of the folks there are interested in the giant vegetables on display or the prize hogs being shown, many more are there for the food, and that’s our topic today.

The NC fair seems to be a coming out party for many foods that I can only classify as lab experiments. Many of the foods for sale are normal things such as Cuban Sandwiches that have been “enhanced” by deep frying. Deep-fried Key Lime Pie? You bet! Others are the sorts of things one might dream up in college while in altered states of consciousness. Unicorn Bacon, which is Bacon-on-a-Stick dipped in glaze and rolled in Fruity Pebbles cereal. Then there’s Jalapeno Cheetos Bacon: Bacon-on-a-Stick dipped in jalapeno nacho cheese and rolled in Cheetos. You catch my drift.

Here’s my issue. We have an obesity problem in this country along with an epidemic of diabetes. I don’t think people would have a heck of a lot of fun eating salads as they stroll the midway, but there’s also no limit on how much of the nutritionally horrible stuff one can consume. Before you jump on me, let me point out there the fair does limit how much beer or wine you can buy. In fact, they only started selling beer and wine last year, and you can buy 6oz of wine OR 16oz of beer or cider. Period. One time only, and it’s sold in only one place. In part, it’s to maintain a family-friendly atmosphere but it’s also because the powers that be think alcohol isn’t good for you. Is limiting unhealthy food consumption that different?

There’s a lot of education at the fair. There are demonstrations and exhibits of just about everything represented there. There isn’t, however, any education about healthy eating nor about what a burger held between two Krispy Kreme donuts does to your system when it’s consumed after Candied Bacon S’mores and a Shrimp and Cheddar Cheese Grits Eggroll (that sounds pretty good, by the way). Throw in a sugary soda or two and it’s pretty easy to see why there’s an obesity issue. I know people don’t eat this way all the time and every so often, it’s fun to treat yourself. The problem is that many folks really do eat this way much of the time.

None of us in business can afford to kill our customers. In this case, educating the customers about what they’re putting in their bodies might help keep a few of them around a little longer so they can indulge for many years to come. Do I think the vendors are being malicious or deceptive about what they’re selling? Not a bit. I just wish they, like all of us in business, thought about what impact their products have on their customers and the environment before they pushed them on the public. The rides at the fair have signs explaining that some people shouldn’t ride and that the ride is a health risk to others with back conditions, high blood pressure, etc. Maybe the food stalls need something similar?

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Filed under food, Thinking Aloud, What's Going On

Why Don’t They Answer The Phone?

I wrote last week about the new area in which I’ve begun consulting. Thank you, by the way, to all of you who both read the announcement and sent along your support.

The bulk of the people to whom I speak about investing in a franchise come to me via a system of ads. Some of the ads promote a specific brand and others just speak to the great opportunity buying into a franchise affords someone who is looking to work for themselves. Both types of ads generate leads. These are people who fill out a form and ask to be contacted. With me so far?

What’s struck me after contacting nearly 100 of these respondents is how few of them actually respond. I realize not everyone is going to answer the phone, but if they don’t, I leave a polite voicemail and send them an email as well. Obviously, they’ve provided the information. Most don’t respond to either, even to say “hey, I was bored late one night and I filled this out but I’m not really interested.”

You should know that I’m not selling them anything. My services are free. Like a realtor, I’m paid by the seller; in this case, the franchisor. Once I get them on the telephone, it takes only about 10 minutes for me to assess their needs and to figure out how we should proceed, so this process is neither time-consuming nor costly. They’ve taken the time to start the process yet they hit the brakes before it even gets going.

What’s the point for your business? Sometimes customers know they have a need but they’re afraid of solving the problem. For any of us, change is hard. For people who are unhappy with their lives, it can be crippling to believe that there is a better way on the other end of the phone or through the door to your business. In my case, most of these people want to change their lives somehow and I think they were channeling that when they filled out the form. When change came knocking at their door (or calling their phones), the fear kicked in. Any business faces that to a certain extent. Why don’t people go for physicals? Putting aside the cost, I think in part it’s because they don’t feel bad and they don’t want to know if something is wrong. If the states didn’t mandate auto inspections, how many people would routinely have a mechanic give it the once over as preventative maintenance?

Part of what we need to do as good businesspeople is to guide our customers. They may be fearful or reluctant. Remember that they wouldn’t be at your door if they didn’t have a problem big or small that they need to be solved. Your job (and mine) is to help them with that solution and a better life. Make sense?

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Filed under Huh?, Thinking Aloud

Mounting On The Right

Let’s begin this week with a question for all you folks who like to ride horses. In fact, if you’ve ever been on a horse, you can probably try to answer it too. Here we go: on which side of the horse do we ALWAYS mount and dismount? Now that’s pretty simple, right? It’s the left side. In fact, you’ll almost always see the horse being led by someone on the left side as well. The real question is why, and that’s where things get interesting for your business.

No, there isn’t a physiological reason we do this. Most horses aren’t blind on their right sides so we’re not going to spook them. Basically, we mount from the left because it’s traditional. Unlike some traditions, this one has a practical reason for existing. Many of the people who rode horses hundred of years ago also were wearing swords, which were generally worn on a person’s left side so they could grab it with their right hand. If you tried to mount a horse from the right, the sword you wore on your left would get in the way, and no one wants to impale either themselves or their mount.

Those days of swords are long gone for most of us but the tradition of mounting from the left continues. Is there really anything preventing us from training a horse to accept mounts from the right side? Not really – we just don’t. That answer is probably applicable to something you’re doing in your business as well. Reports that get cranked out week after week or meetings that get held without fail. Maybe those things had a very good reason for existing when they began (maybe back in the days of swords!) but don’t really now.

The point is that we need to constantly be asking ourselves why things are the way that they are. Circumstances change constantly. Markets change and so do customer needs and preferences. It might just be time to ask yourself if it’s appropriate to try the right side, don’t you think?

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Filed under Consulting, Thinking Aloud

Under My Tongue

This Foodie Friday, I want us to think about the thing that really makes food worth eating: our sense of taste. I was at a tequila tasting the other night (don’t judge – you’d be fine if I had said wine tasting) and the fellow conducting the tasting had the participants do something interesting. He asked us to dip our fingers into the tequila we were sampling and to place a dab UNDER our tongues. When we did so, a moment later we had a completely different taste experience than when we placed a drop directly on our tongues. The subtle sweetness of the tequila became evident while many of the more dominant notes for which tequila is often known didn’t immediately appear.

This got me thinking. You probably know that the old myths about our tongues having different “regions” of taste have been disproven (and it’s easy to do that yourself). You might not know, however, that without saliva you can’t taste anything. That’s easy to prove yourself as well. Just dry off your tongue and put some food directly on it. You probably won’t taste anything at all. Have a sip of water and try again. There’s the taste! I’m sure you’ve also had the experience of not being able to taste when you have a cold. 80% of taste is related to smell – the flavor of something happens when the tongue and the nose combine their work in your brain.

What does this have to do with business? Quite a lot, actually, My thinking is that when I put that dab of tequila under my tongue, it merged with my saliva, which comes from under the tongue. It then traveled to my taste buds, diluted by amylase, an enzyme that acts on sugars and other carbohydrates, which is found in saliva. That’s why the sweetness came out without a lot of “heat”. Approaching the tequila from a different place resulted in my understanding of its true nature. It’s actually made from a sugary liquid (you’ve heard of agave nectar, I’m sure). That’s the business point.

What if we approached an old problem from a different place? That’s a far more difficult thing than just placing it under your tongue instead of on top, but it does point out how we often have different experiences and better understanding if we can find a way to do so. Wherever that “under the tongue” place is, we can use it to remove factors that might be blinding us to a problem’s solution or to understanding something.

I left the tasting with a much deeper understanding of tequila. I don’t even have a headache today despite having quite a few tequila tastes over the course of the tasting. Learning doesn’t give me headaches, I guess. You?

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Filed under Consulting, food, Thinking Aloud

A Foundation Of Trust

Bruce Springsteen wrote about trust on his “Magic” album:

Trust none of what you hear (trust none of what you hear)
And less of what you see

That’s good advice these days but it’s far from a current issue. In far, The Boss was only echoing Edgar Allen Poe, who wrote in the short story “The System of Dr. Tarr and Prof. Fether”:

“Believe nothing you hear, and only one half that you see.”

I don’t think Poe, however, envisioned the dramatic lack of trust that most consumers have in the very people upon whom much of their digital lives rely. We see it in the reports that Pew stated that over 40% of Facebook users between the age of 18 and 29 had deleted Facebook from their phones in the past year. While Facebook disputes that number, there’s no doubt that even one user choosing to avoid your product or service on the basis of trust is a huge problem.

How do we solve this? As is my style, I tend to dumb it down to a very simple thing. Don’t do anything to your customers that you wouldn’t want to be done to you or to a member of your family. If you’re OK with your spouse being surveilled and his or her data sold to the highest bidder than be my guest in doing so to your customers. If that notion gives you pause, however, maybe you ought not to be considering doing so to anyone, at least without their full knowledge and consent. That means what you’re doing is front and center and not buried in a 3,000-word terms and conditions clickwrap agreement.

Once trust is lost, it’s extremely difficult to rebuild. You might have experienced this on a personal basis with a friend. As difficult as that might have been, it’s even harder for a business where there is generally not a human face on the brand or service nor an individual with whom to speak. The best solution is never to jeopardize trust in the first place. It’s a foundational issue. Your customers need to trust you and all of what you say. Don’t prove Bruce and Poe right, ok?

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Filed under Consulting, Thinking Aloud