Tag Archives: technology

I Think We Failed

I’ve been doing “digital” as a business since the mid-1990s. Back then it was a bunch of walled gardens that featured mostly text-only content. Those gardens also suddenly made email widely available and I, like many, was really optimistic about the potential the coming digital world would hold in terms of communication and information. The Information Age was dawning, right?

The walls came down from around those gardens and the open internet bloomed. Soon everyone had email and nearly everyone began spending time catching up with old school chums and distant family via this thing called social media. Every content provider had a website, and many people would read the newspaper or a magazine off of a screen rather than off a sheet of paper in their hands. Video soon entered the mix as the pipes got bigger and the devices faster. Today pretty much everyone carries a powerful computer/communications tool/web device in their pockets and are connected non-stop. Technology has become ubiquitous, just as many folks envisioned.

Except that we failed. Social media is anti-social. Many of my friends and I suspect of yours spend hours arguing about things they have little or no ability to change. Of more concern is that their arguments are often based on sketchy facts that they found in their digital travels. Kids sitting at the same table don’t look at one another and would rather Snapchat one another than talk face to face. We don’t have relationships with people because relationships need to have a face-to-face component in my opinion. If you believe what you see in your news feeds, everyone’s life is fabulous and fun yet we know everyone has the same problems from time to time. Their kids aren’t perfect, their meals aren’t all perfect-looking, almost everyone has worries of some sort (yes, non-political ones!), and not every day is spent traveling to exotic locations.

I think we failed. I don’t think most of us appreciated the dangers inherent in the overuse of technology until the last couple of years. We’ve become less social, less open to thinking that doesn’t mirror our own, and too connected to the screen world in front of us while we’re disconnecting from the fabulous world beyond our screens. We’ve learned to code and we’ve not learned history. We go to concerts and watch them through a screen while shooting a video instead of losing ourselves in the music. We text our kids to come to dinner and don’t make them put down the phone and talk, mostly because we’re catching up on our own social streams.

I don’t know if I have a point today because I don’t know that this is “fixable.” We live in a world of surveillance capitalism and the companies that profit from it not only aren’t going to go away any time soon but are aggregating into a very few behemoths that know everything about us. What have we done?

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Filed under Huh?, Reality checks, Thinking Aloud

Grinding Your Own

It’s Foodie Friday and the topic is ground beef. I try, whenever possible, to grind my own beef and the thinking behind that is also thinking that can be used in business decision-making.

You can walk into any supermarket and purchase ground beef. In fact, you can be very specific about chuck vs. sirloin, the percentage of fat in the mix and often grass-fed vs. non. That’s great in my mind when you are making chili or meatballs or some other dish requiring that the beef cooks for quite a while. For burgers, however, I’m grinding my own. I’ll generally grind a mix of chuck, brisket, and short rib and I’ll usually grind some parboiled bacon into the meat both for fat and for flavor. The biggest reason I take the time to do this, however, isn’t the flavor. It’s food safety. I like to eat my burgers on the rare side and ground beef from a store is generally not safe to eat unless it’s cooked more than I like it to be. I know what’s in my mix and that it’s safe to eat when cooked to less than 165 degrees.

Is it a pain to clean the grinder? Yes. Does it take more time than just opening a package from the store? Of course. But the results are much better and exactly what I want even if it costs a bit more and take more time. That’s exactly the process any business goes through when making a “build vs. buy” decision. Let me run you through the steps.

First, you need to validate that you actually need the technology you’re considering. In burger terms, I’m hungry so I need food. I have a legitimate need. In considering tech, you need to figure out if you’re finding a solution without a problem existing. Next, you need to pull together core business requirements. My burger must be safe to eat when rare, it must hold together on a grill, etc. You need to involve anyone whose business is affected by the proposed tech to be sure all constituents weigh in on requirements.

The technical architecture requirements come next. If you’re looking outside, can the product fit in with your existing infrastructure? Does it meet whatever standards your business has already? It’s only after the above steps have been taken that you can start to evaluate build vs. buy. In my case, I have a need, my requirements are clear, I’ve asked my dinner guests if they like burgers, how they want them cooked, and what they put on them. I figured out I’m building the beef but buying the rolls, mayo, pickles, onions, and tomatoes even though I could also build them.

The final steps in the evaluation concern costs and support but you get the point. Some managers start evaluation solutions before they pull together requirements and the overview of the environment in which the solution will live. While it was an easy decision for me to grind my own beef, few business decisions are as easy and require planning and forethought. Make sense?

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Filed under Consulting, food

Break Up Facebook

I’m a capitalist. I’m a big believer that the free enterprise system should be left to work pretty much without outside interference. We can have a lively discussion as to whether that really ever happens (I don’t think it does) but I think we can agree that where the free enterprise system needs to have some controls imposed are when the system results in anticompetitive and/or anticonsumer behavior. Historically, the government takes action at that point, as it did with Standard Oil and with original AT&T. I think we’re at that point again with Facebook and I think the company needs to be broken up.

Many of you don’t remember the old AT&T. It controlled local phones, long-distance services, and the manufacture of most telephone equipment. You can read a detailed explanation of the hows and whys of the breakup here but the net result was that phone services got more competitive, equipment improved, and the number of wireless services and broadband providers we have now is a result. AT&T was a  monopoly, and when its monopoly power was removed, it struggled.

Facebook is a monopoly. They’ve become so massive that you can’t escape their data collection system. They’ve bought any company that seems as if it might become competitive. They aren’t “winning” because they have a better product; they’re doing so because we don’t really have a choice or because they’ve cheated. Facebook bases its business model on anti-consumer behavior and, frankly, lying. They lied to publishers. They lied to video creators.  They lied to the government about data collection and the role they played in spreading misinformation and propaganda while accepting money to do so. They’ve lied to you. Think about the number of times you’ve read about some horrible thing the company has done only to promise it won’t happen again and they’ll be better. Until the next time.

Germany just did something that could show us the way. Germany’s antitrust regulator has told Facebook it must stop forcing users to allow it to collect and combine their data from sources outside Facebook. Among such sources are Facebook-owned apps like WhatsApp and Instagram as well as third-party websites that include Facebook features like the “share” button. Since Facebook derives 99% of its revenue from advertising based on that data collection, this is a great first step.

The last straw from me was the realization that Facebook is monetizing data from people who don’t even have a Facebook account. When people navigate around the internet, sites that use Facebook’s advertising pixel or other social APIs linking back to Facebook (like the “Like” button) send data about those site visits back to Facebook. Facebook collects that data on everyone who visits these sites, whether they’re a registered user or not. You might not be on Facebook but that doesn’t stop them from selling your data. It’s also why any ad-based digital publishing business is probably going to have to survive on crumbs since Facebook scarfs up most of the ad dollars since they have most of the data. Yes, I know Google grabs just as much but it’s a different business model. Search isn’t display.

Break up Facebook. The digital world needs its walls to crumble so that new businesses – better and more ethical businesses – can survive. Start by breaking off Instagram and What’s App. Don’t let them make any new acquisitions of competitors. That’s where I’d begin. You?

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Filed under Huh?, Thinking Aloud

Lucky Or Good

I have a rant for you today and I’m going to say upfront that it is not political in nature although as you read it you might think that it’s my intention to make it so.

One of the things I’ve noticed in business is that we tend to put people who are rich or successful (and usually both) on a pedestal. We assume that they know a heck of a lot more than we do because they are rich or successful. We listen to them give speeches and prognosticate on business and the world. The reality is that more often than not they’re more the beneficiaries of “right place, right time” than they are smart.

You think I’m exaggerating? Let’s take a few examples in tech. The founders of Google at one time said they’d never take ads because it might throw in to question the purity of their search results. It took a non-founder, a person you probably have never heard of, to convince them that great computer science is one thing but running a business that has investors is quite another. Advertising is what makes Google profitable. Are the founders smart or lucky?

Think of all of Google’s products or Facebook’s for that matter. Besides the “core” product, what have they invented that demonstrate that they’re not just a one-trick pony? YouTube? Instagram? What’s App? Sorry, all acquisitions. Most of the features or products they have were created elsewhere and either bought or copied. Think about how many failed products or features those companies have produced. I’d suggest that they, like many in tech, we much luckier than they were good and yet we venerate many of them as if they were Einstein.

Then there are those in business who were born on third base. These are the ones who came from money and often are working in a family business. The positions they’re in can command respect but unlike those people who advance into those positions via hard work and demonstrating talent, these folks are often unsuited for jobs several levels below where they are. I’ve encountered several of them in my career and did my best to avoid them in business dealings.

Would I rather be lucky than good? I often say exactly that, mostly after a wayward golf shot hits something and ricochets back into a good spot. Studies have shown that we can create luck by being extroverted, observant, and positive It also helps to have perfect timing as many of those who got rich in the early internet days did. The really smart ones got out, recognizing that when a rogue wave throws you out of the ocean rather than drowning you, use the dry land to run away.

This isn’t prompted by anything other than a two-hour car drive which afforded me some time to think. I’ve been both lucky and, I think, pretty good. Life isn’t a zero sum game and I don’t begrudge these charlatans their success. I do, however, wish some of them would stop confusing their success or the jobs they hold with who they are as people and what skills they possess. Hopefully, none of us are doing that, right?

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Filed under Reality checks, Thinking Aloud

How Your Dog Food Tastes

I saw something in an article this morning that had me nodding my head in agreement and I thought it was something that all of us should think about. It was a piece about how the growth of marketing technology companies has stalled and it gave as a reason this:

There is a long list of sales and marketing tech vendors that have had their growth stalled for a number of reasons: failure to find a use case with broad market appeal, product based on a feature, or quite simply couldn’t execute.While these companies might have received more funding two or three years ago, in today’s climate VCs are not replenishing their offers. Today, there are big rounds for those with momentum and a big story, or no funding for those that don’t.

In other words, many of these companies have been able to attract a client base but the results those clients were expecting haven’t been there. That’s a critical thought when you’re making promises, isn’t it? I can’t begin to count the number of tech companies I’ve spoken with over the years that made huge promises but failed to deliver.

I wrote about this several years ago. Way back in 2011, I wrote:

I can’t tell you how many presentations I’ve sat through for companies that were going to grow my revenues 10x but wouldn’t take 90% of the first year’s incremental revenues as a fee.  Big red flag.  Then there were the companies who promised great service but wouldn’t sign service level agreements that legally obligated them to provide that great service.

So at the risk of repeating myself, I’m going to repeat myself (this time from 2016):

Nothing like eating your own dog food, right? But that’s a critical part of serving our customers well and each of us needs to do that on a regular basis. When was the last time you tried to go through checkout on your own online store? How was the experience? How about trying to return what you purchased or put in a call to your customer service department? My guess is that none of your top managers have done any of those things in a while.

You can only grow so big if the results aren’t there. If you haven’t explored those results with your customers along with the time, effort, and expense it took them to achieve those results, you’re not doing your job. More importantly, you’re setting your growth curve on a downward course because nothing in business happens in a vacuum these days. People talk.

One thing I’ve learned in consulting on franchises is the importance of what we call validating the franchise. It’s when a prospective owner speaks with current owners to find out if the representations made by the franchisor are accurate and complete. It’s kind of like checking references when you hire except the FTC requires the franchisors to disclose the names and phone numbers of all their current franchisees so you can’t control with whom a candidate speaks. That means the results have to be there, pretty much across the board.

When was the last time you spoke to your customers about their results from using your product or service? If you have to think about it, it has probably been too long. Food for thought?

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Filed under Consulting, Helpful Hints

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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Filed under digital media, What's Going On

A.I. Aye Yi Yi

One of the hottest topics in business these days is artificial intelligence. One can hardly pick up a business publication of any sort and not trip over an algorithm. AI is being used to do everything from writing articles to running chatbots to protecting against fraud. There is one problem with AI, though, and that’s our topic today. 

You’ve probably encountered something that’s the product of AI. A fair number of game summaries one finds in the sports pages (physical or digital) are, in fact, written by machines. Same with many company summaries in the financial section. The main problem with these pieces is that they’re great at populating a template with all the facts and not so great at figuring out the “why.” You might also have used an online chat function to get some customer service support. More often then not, that’s AI at work as well. But that’s not the business problem I want to discuss.

The problem with most of the AI solutions I read about is that they’re all geared toward helping a business but they’re not focused at all on helping the customer. If you’ve ever wandered into an AI-driven customer support phone line you know what I mean. Get outside of what the algorithm can handle and your blood pressure is sure to soar. While the bot on the other end knows all about you if you’re able to identify yourself in the way the AI is designed (frequent shopper number, etc.), if you don’t know what phone number was used to create the account or you’re a frequent shopper without a frequent shopper ID (some folks don’t live being tracked, you know), it’s hard to get support. Humans are still better at solving many non-standard requests.

I get that sharing all your data – what you read, what you watch, where you go, what you eat, etc. – can help a company give you better recommendations. The problem is that many of the companies use that as a pretext to sell you products you might not really need. Can any of us really know how the data was used to create a recommendation? When a fitness app tells us we’re having sleep issues because our data says so and says we need to buy a new mattress, can we trust that or is it an affiliate deal that brings the fitness app a commission? Maybe we just ought not to have that nightcap instead if we want to sleep better?

I think the use of AI in some areas is fantastic. Fraud protection, for example. It’s easy for AI to spot something that’s out of place in your credit card use and send you an alert. That’s customer-centric. Using a bot to cut costs while providing a lesser experience isn’t and that’s my issue with much of the AI work that’s going on now. What’s your take?

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Filed under Reality checks, Thinking Aloud, What's Going On