Category Archives: What’s Going On

Reading The Declaration

As we head toward Independence Day here in the U.S., I usually do something that I’d encourage you all to do as well. I read The Declaration Of Independence. Why you might wonder, would I read the same document that I must have read at least 50 times? Because like almost everything, context is almost as important as content and since the context seems to change constantly, how I’m reading the document does as well.

You probably know some of the “big” parts:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. — That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, — That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.

What you probably haven’t read lately (maybe ever!) is the laundry list of “Facts” the colonists were accusing the King of imposing. They run the gamut from messing with the legislature and the legislative process to obstructing immigration to using the military to keep the populace in check. There are limits in trade and imposition of taxes, and of course, “He has plundered our seas, ravaged our coasts, burnt our towns, and destroyed the lives of our people.” It’s quite a list and if you haven’t read it, you can here.

I raise this for a couple of reasons. First, you will see some current issues on the list. 242 years later we’re still arguing about things such as immigration, taxes, trade policies and other things on the list. Second, you might ask yourself what your customers, partners, vendors, and employees might say if they were asked to construct a similar list about you and your business. I think before they declare independence from you, they probably do just that even if they don’t write them down and publish them.

As we celebrate the birth of our country, we might also think about how that birth came about. That same process might result in affecting your business since I believe one message of the Declaration is that leaders need to listen. Are you?

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Growing Older But Not Up

Jimmy Buffett wrong a song almost 40 years ago called “Growing Older But Not Up.” He wrote the song after breaking his leg in a charity softball game while running the bases. It’s a song I think about fairly often as I’m aging.

Our bodies grow older and change but we still think we’re eternally 25 and able to do all of the silly things we did then without consequences. We sometimes fail to recognize that we’ve changed and we need to deal with the world differently:

Though my mind is quite flexible
These brittle bones don’t bend.

Amen, brother. He was 34 when he wrote that and he says he’s still behaving badly at 71 though to a far lesser degree. The only constant is change, right? I think so, although I wonder sometimes if many in business recognize that this country is changing as it grows older too. I mean that literally. The country is aging, and it’s probably one of the most important changes affecting everyone in business. My generation, the baby boomers, are living longer, the birth rate is down among younger people, and we’re an older population. Here’s a tidbit:

Census figures show that fewer than 17 percent of U.S. counties reported a decrease in median age from April 2010 to July 2017, with the majority of those counties clustered in the Midwest. Nationally, the median age rose to 38.0 years in 2017, up from 37.2 years in 2000.

Doesn’t sound like much of a change but it represents the reason why we see many more ads for drugs (older folks are generally sicker), bigger cars, retirement accounts, and other things. So the question to you is how are you preparing for, and dealing with, the demographic changes that are happening? We’re becoming a more diverse nation too but that’s a much more complicated answer than focusing on age.

You have a couple of choices. You can reexamine your product mix and see if it appeals to people over 50. I’m not sure that Facebook thought it was a senior product but that’s what it has become as young folks are using it less and less. If it has appeal, maybe you need to be targeting that older segment, or at least testing.

The other choice is to deny the change. You’d be like Jimmy, trying to pursue things that reality makes less possible. Your heart and mind might be the right place but your market has changed and you need to adjust your thinking. We can all complain about the changes to the market but we can’t reverse them. Make sense?

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Help Wanted

It’s June, the month of newly-minted college graduates entering the workforce. There will be a fair amount of job-seeking going on and today I want to spend a minute to reflect on a few things I’ve learned over the years both about finding a job and filling one.

First, finding one. Obviously, the way the job market works has changed since I graduated college several decades ago. Job websites and LinkedIn didn’t exist and the process is way more efficient now. The problem is that so has the nature of work because business itself has been reshaped. The disintermediation of almost everything has meant the nature of hiring needs has changed. Retail jobs have moved from store clerks to engineers who help with online inventory management, customer experience, and other jobs that didn’t exist in the retail sector back in the day. Ride-sharing has created a different sort of cab driver (a popular job for many when we couldn’t get other work), one that doesn’t require a hack license but does require that you have access to a car.

What hasn’t changed about looking for that entry-level job is that you need to have a willingness to do damn near anything. My first job was making slides for presentations at a trade group. Yes, I was an honors graduate with degrees in English and Education and I had no interest in making slides: I wanted to write. I also wanted to eat and to get my foot in the door. I’m always surprised when I talk with a young person who feels many entry jobs are beneath them.

The other thing that hasn’t changed, and this applies to both sides of the hiring desk, is the skills required. I always looked for people who were smart, who could express that intelligence both orally and in the written communication we had, and who seemed like self-starters. Those candidates are the ones who will learn on the job and perform, and I have many examples of that in my hiring. I’d add to the list that the candidate should be able to handle disruptions well. Every business has been or will be disrupted and, therefore, the nature of every job will change as well. Society and business are constantly getting more efficient – more things will be available to more people for lower overall costs – so the hiring and job-seeking processes need to mirror that. Does yours?

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Bourdain

This is a tough way to end our week with a food-related post here on Foodie Friday. As you’ve probably heard by now, Anthony Bourdain committed suicide in his Paris hotel room yesterday. For those of us who loved his use of food as a way to explore and understand this world of ours, it’s a massive loss. Sure, there are other programs that attempt to do what he did, but none as literate nor as beautifully executed.

The question to which we’ll never have an answer is “why.” Here is a person who seemingly “had it all” despite rough patches in his life: drug addiction and failed marriages among them. His successes should have outweighed his failures and yet something inside him made him end it all.

I’ve written before on suicide. Back in 2015, a friend of mine killed himself. His life had spiraled downhill physically, financially, and personally. It was a lot easier to grasp why he did what he did than it is with Bourdain. In that post, I quoted something I had written 2 years prior and I want to state it again:

We all know a person who displays symptoms of things not being right in their lives. Those symptoms could come in the form of substance abuse or a big weight gain. Maybe their personality has changed – gone from light to dark. If you care about that person, you probably think about a way to say something that asks about what’s going on. It’s hard – people have feelings, after all and they are probably just as aware as you are of what they’re doing. Probably more so.  The ensuing discussion can be hard for both of you.  Sometimes it can derail a friendship.  More often, it begins a healing process, but only if you care enough to say something.

I don’t know if those closest to Tony knew he had a darkness overcoming his light. Maybe you do know someone who has that issue. The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is  1-800-273-8255. They also have live chat. Help your friend get help.

I’ll miss Bourdain’s acerbic insights. I’ll miss the snarky personality that contrasted with his big heart. Both came through loud and clear in his work. What didn’t, neither in his work nor, it seems, in his friendships, was something fundamentally wrong that drove him to something this desperate. He once said:

“We ask very simple questions: What makes you happy? What do you eat? What do you like to cook? And everywhere in the world we go and ask these very simple questions,” he said, “we tend to get some really astonishing answers.”

Maybe someone should have asked him, particularly the first one.

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Why Is Right So Hard?

A long post today – please bear with me. I’m sure you have heard about the cancellation of Roseanne after the show’s namesake sent out a racist tweet. There was about a two-hour delay from when the tweet went public until ABC pulled the plug on the program. During that time, I wondered if ABC and parent company Disney would do the right thing. They did and it’s a great example to any of us in business about something that I’m passionate about.

You know we don’t do politics here. This isn’t political – it’s all business, people. Let’s look at this from a business perspective and let me explain why I’m so proud to be an ABC alumnus today.

First, the business background. This piece from Variety explains the issues ABC has had for years on Tuesday nights. In Roseanne, they finally had not only a hit program but a show around which they could build a solid night of programming. While they had not reaped a huge financial windfall from the show (it was a midseason replacement), they were poised to use it in the negotiations for ad time during the upcoming season. The way things work is that if you want to buy a hit you generally have to buy other programming too to get the best pricing. In other words, the loss is more about what might have been rather than existing dollars. Still, it is a financial hit.

Which leads me to the point about which I’m passionate. ABC made a decision to do the right thing no matter the financial cost or how disruptive it may be to their business. I’m sure they also looked to the potential cost to the Disney brand if they were to give tacit approval to what Roseanne tweeted by doing nothing. They looked to the long-term and to take action in accordance with their own principles and not the easy road. While there is never a good time for something like this to take place, this is probably about the worst possible time, given that the upfront selling season is beginning and ABC just announced their schedule, which will now have to be remade, two weeks ago.

Why is it so hard for companies to do the right thing? A heck of a lot don’t. Insurance companies who spend more effort finding ways to deny claims than to pay them.  Oil companies who fund fake studies to promote climate change denial rather than working to find clean energy. Food and tobacco companies that know about the problems with their products but who fight efforts to make the public aware. Those are just a few examples and I’m sure you can think of many more.

Contrast ABC’s quick, decisive action with other media companies who protected bad behavior by big-time talent. It didn’t require multiple meetings or in-depth analysis. The right course of action was obvious. I’d argue it was as well in other recent cases where the company failed to do the right thing. Equifax knew they had a hacking problem months before they told the public. In that time, executives may have sold $1.8 Billion in shares. Someone at Wells Fargo must have come up with the plan to charge half a million consumers for insurance they didn’t need. Why didn’t someone say “oh hell no” and fire the person on the spot? Even Apple failed to do the right thing by not telling customers it was slowing down their phones even though customers asked.

Any of these things could have been prevented if the businesspeople involved had acted honorably. By that, I mean in a way that would stand up to public scrutiny when measured against ethical and moral standards. Someone knew, someone could have nipped it in the bud, and someone could have used it as a teaching moment to explain why doing the right thing is important.

I know not everyone shares exactly the same standards, but I do believe that placing customers’ needs about profits, thinking long-term, and behaving as if the customer were your Mom or Dad rather than a “mark” is better than maximizing revenue. Shareholder value comes from long-term customers with high lifetime values and a sterling reputation. You get those by opting to do the right thing.

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We Are At An Advertising Turning Point

Unless you never use the internet, you’re aware that something is happening in the next few days because every service and site you use is updating their terms of use. You may be wondering why you’re getting lots of emails to that effect or why sites are putting large banners to that effect on their homepage. It’s due to the start date of the GDPR. In case any of you don’t run digital businesses (which I suspect is most of you), the GDPR is a regulation that pertains to privacy and data protection for all citizens of the E.U. Because the internet is a global thing, many digital publishers and stores are extending the protections of the GDPR to their non-European consumers as well. I, for one, am very glad even though there is a good chance that it will force the ad tech business to change dramatically. It’s a big effing deal and we are at a turning point.

Let me preface this by saying that I got fed up with the ridiculous amount of tracking going on quite a while ago. Like many people, I think that tracking someone without their permission or a court order is wrong. I think it slows down the user experience and unbalances the trade of content for attention toward the publisher since tracking me beyond your content is infringing on some other entity’s territory. Besides that, it’s creepy. I don’t want to see a few weeks’ worth of ads for an item I looked up for a friend in which I have zero interest. I don’t care about ad personalization, frankly, although I know for many people it’s a much better user experience. I think only showing me ads for products and services that you think I might care about excludes product discovery and I have proof in that I’ve made many purchases based on content-based marketing but very few based on served ads.

I installed a browser extension called Cookie Auto Delete which wipes out cookies as you surf. That’s on top of Ghostery which blocks ads and other trackers. Because of that, I don’t see ads other than those targeted to things such as geography that don’t require cookies (actually, I don’t see a lot of ads period). Am I hurting my friends in digital publishing? I don’t think so since most of the cookies placed these days are not by publishers but by ad tech services that I think undermine the value of great content. They value eyeballs, not what lures the eyeballs.  Ads served directly by publishers and embedded in their content value the content. They’re not based on your ability to track me.

Am I overly sensitive? Not when I’m joined by billions of people who have installed ad blockers. If ad tech was doing a great job, that wouldn’t be happening. Would GDPR be necessary if ad tech companies respected consumers’ privacy? Of course not and I think it’s going to cripple any business that doesn’t respect its customers enough to work in the customer’s best interest. Tracking them like Big Brother doesn’t do that, does it?

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DIY Failure

What do you do when you’ve done almost everything right and yet your business is failing? It’s not a hypothetical question and the answers I’ve come up with kind of scare me a little. Let’s see what you think.

The town from which I moved has fewer and fewer “mom and pop” stores. Most of them have been replaced by national chains. Main Street used to be unique, interesting retailers. Now it’s basically an outdoor copy of most malls with chain store after chain store packed in next door to one another. I still read the local news from the town in which I lived for 35 years and I was saddened to see that another one has bitten the dust. Let me explain why it raised some questions in my mind.

It was a local hardware store run by a family who is well-known in the town. As one local blogger wrote, “They’ve been the go-to place for gardening supplies in spring, rakes in the fall, paint and keys and pest control and light bulbs and a lot more whenever we need it.” It wasn’t huge but as local places go it had a fair amount of inventory and I suspect that it could satisfy the Do It Yourself needs of most folks. Therein lies the problem. The owner put it well, citing irreversible challenges, including online sales competition and the loss of skilled DIYers to a keypad culture.

Guilty as charged, sir. Much of the time I just have Amazon deliver what I know I’ll need in a day or two. Of course, in my old town, fewer and fewer people actually even do things themselves, preferring to call someone. When I changed out my first toilet fill valve here in my new place, I did think to myself that I probably would have called a plumber and paid for an hour of his or her time to do a 10-minute job – 40 if you count the time it took to run to Walmart to get the part.

This family did everything right. They were never too busy to help you understand how to do a repair or improvement job as they made sure you had the right materials and tools. They personalized everything, something the online world is still learning to do. Did you pay a little more (and it really was a little)? Yes, but you also were 100% sure you had what you needed. The market has changed, however, and competing with Home Depot or Lowes or Amazon (for the smaller number of people in town who still did things themselves) became impossible.

What would I have advised them? More in-store classes, a better online presence establishing themselves as local, available experts, maybe get a kid to deliver. Yes, the big guys do some of that too, but having the local, familiar edge could make a difference. I’m not sure any of that would have worked, but I also know that most retail is still brick and mortar, not online. I do think that competing with online as well as with giant home improvement centers, however, is too much. The benefits of technology are generally good, but in this case, tech has disrupted the local ecosystem, much as introducing a non-native predator to solve one problem can cause many others. Any local grocery stores in your town? Not in mine. Auto repair, restaurants, clothing stores, heck, even car dealers are all heading down this same path. Could your business be as well? What can you do NOW?

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