Archive for May, 2007


Worth Taking the Risk

Life’s risky. But breathing isn’t enough for most people, so we add to the risk. We drive cars, we go on dates, we try a new restaurant. Risk makes life more exciting, more enjoyable, more worthwhile. Risk can also lead to amazing discoveries. Orville Wright points out that “If we all worked on the assumption that what is accepted as true is really true, there would be little hope of advance.” (link)

He would know. In partnership with his brother Wilbur, the Wright brothers took one of the biggest risks in history. They dared to be bold, to be so different people thought they were crazy. Now, over 100 years ago, Boeing is putting the finishing touches on its 787 Dreamliner, and flying is an accepted part of everyday life.

The Wright brothers didn’t invent the idea of human flight. “The fact that the great scientist believed in flying machines was the one thing that encouraged us to begin our studies,” said Wilbur. (link) But they saw an opportunity and looked beyond the obvious. Many of history’s biggest risks are now accepted as commonplace, but at the time, were seen as ridiculous:

  • Exploration: The Vikings, the Chinese, Columbus, de Soto, Magellan…the search for new worlds held huge risk. Google Maps didn’t exist, so navigation relied on stars and luck that ships would hit land before supplies ran out.
  • Democracies: Common citizens couldn’t rule themselves, they needed kings, or so royalty thought. Going back to ancient Greece and Rome, countries like the U.S. found precedent for democratic government. Now, in theory anyway, citizens rule their nations.
  • Health care: Germs didn’t exist, a knife under the bed cut pain, and bleeding released “ill humors” and cured disease. Thanks to doctors like Pasteur, Lister, and Jenner and medical research, people are living well into there 70’s, 80’s, and 90’s.

Critics of risk takers still seem to outweigh those willing to make the leap. Josh Porter over on Bokardo highlights the ongoing argument about “amateurs” flooding the civilized world with nonsense. He points out:

What isn’t clear is how much better off we’ll be with so many people learning how to write. Maybe we will have citizen journalists that deliver news faster and more comprehensive than before. Maybe we’ll have better technology analysts who are specialists in their field and not just good generalists from the big newspapers.

Or maybe, just maybe, we’ll have one or two Michelangelos surface who make everyone forget how much kerfuffle was made about the Cult of the Amateur.

Daring to raise your voice is a risk. When I started this blog, I didn’t want to add more “noise” just because I could. So, I took a risk that at least one other person might be interested in what I have to say. I’ve been lucky…it looks like 50 or so are interested.



Popularity’s High Price

What happens when you become all things to all people, or at least attempt to? You end up with all sorts of headaches. For example, I like Google, but right now, I’m super frustrated with Google. I hadn’t even recognized it until I read danah boyd’s post on poor Google searches, and a second post by someone else (I’ll add a link to the real post if I can ever find it again) on issues with Google Reader (e.g. slow posting/updating).

These issues , however, don’t take away from the overall convenience of having all my Google stuff integrated. Part of me does wonder what Google would be like if they had stayed focused on only search. The other part is open to the possibility that everything Google is doing will only further enhance its search capabilities.

Choosing the Right Direction

Diversification is not a bad thing in and of itself. But what happens when people and companies stretch themselves too far or in the wrong directions? History is littered with both good and poor direction choices. (I found these events via an article on the Fortune site.) Most of the poor direction stories will leave you shaking your head. Here’s a sample:

  • Western Union passing on the telephone: “This ‘telephone’ has too many shortcomings to be seriously considered as a means of communication. The device is inherently of no value to us.”—William Orton, Western Union President
  • The exploding Pinto: A Ford cost benefit analysis showed that it would cost less for Ford to pay restitution to people injured in their rear gas tank mounted vehicles than issue a recall and fix the vehicles. Unfortunately, the public found out.
  • AT&T breakup: Charlie Brown, then-AT&T president, made the decision to voluntarily break up the company before the government could step in. Brown spun off the seven local phone companies, not realizing that profit-driving long distance could be replicated, unlike local phone networks.

Fighting to be King of the Hill

Hindsight makes it easy to say, “What were they thinking?” or “I’d never do that.” However, I believe we underestimate the temptation to be the popular kid, to be the “king of the hill.” For example, Time Warner’s chairman “wanted to make a statement” during the merger between his company and AOL:

Jerry Levin…decided not to place a collar on the transaction. A collar enables the seller—in this case Time Warner—to revisit the terms of the transaction if the buyer’s stock falls below a certain price.

Why did he make that choice? “With a collar, the implication is that you are not really sure and you need this kind of protection,”…”I wanted to make a statement that I believe in it.”…Almost as soon as the companies announced their historic deal, the Internet bubble burst and AOL shares plunged 50%.

Without a collar, Time Warner couldn’t renegotiate the deal. Some Time Warner executives urged Levin to use the drastic drop in AOL’s stock price as an excuse to cancel the merger altogether, or at least as leverage to rework the terms to give Time Warner shareholders a greater stake in the combined company. But Levin…never did. (link)

Sometimes, to succeed, you must make the bold decision, the daring move. At the very least you owe it to yourself, and anyone depending on the outcome of your decision, to carefully consider why your pursuing your chosen path. I try to remember that as enticing as popularity appeared in high school, it came with a price. I believe the same applies in the business world. Just ask Time Warner:

Time Warner shareholders–who once owned 100% of a company worth $75 billion–today own 45% of a company worth, well, roughly $75 billion. (link)

What price are you willing to pay?



If You Can Keep Your Head

I finally got through one of my many stacks, and I came across a Runner’s World article honoring John J. Kelley. Winner of the 1957 Boston Marathon, he’s a proven competitor who has inspired many distance runners with his grace and humility. For me, one event in particular from the article stands out. During Kelley’s induction speech into the National Distance Running Hall of Fame, he didn’t tackle the expected topics related to his early days in the running field.

As the article relates:

“It seems that Kelley had strolled around Utica the previous afternoon, and happened upon a Copernicus statue. This got him thinking about man’s place in the firmament, one of his favorite topics. ‘It occurred to me that when we’re young, we naturally think of ourselves as the center of our universe, and we hope to eventually establish a niche in some hall of fame. But in the development of the individual, the humbling effects of a larger universe take their toll, so by the time an honor such as this comes along, we hedge a little about accepting it.'” (link)

I was so sure of my importance in earlier years. Even today I sometimes get caught up in what I’m working on, what’s most important to me. And it takes days like today (Memorial Day in the States) and articles like this one to remind me that bigger issues exist. One unexpected benefit to this blog has been the placement in context of different things I think about, especially when I’m looking back through history.

Even Copernicus had room in his personal universe for humility:

“For I am not so enamoured of my own opinions that I disregard what others may think of them.” (link)

We live in a crazy time teeming with opportunity, but that opportunity comes at a price. What are we sacrificing to create new universes? What future consequences will we face? Today’s rapidly changing world reminds of Rudyard Kipling’s famous “If:”

If you can keep your head when all about you
Are losing theirs and blaming it on you,
If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you
But make allowance for their doubting too,
If you can wait and not be tired by waiting,
Or being lied about, don’t deal in lies,
Or being hated, don’t give way to hating,
And yet don’t look too good, nor talk too wise:

If you can dream–and not make dreams your master,
If you can think–and not make thoughts your aim;
If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster
And treat those two impostors just the same;
If you can bear to hear the truth you’ve spoken
Twisted by knaves to make a trap for fools,
Or watch the things you gave your life to, broken,
And stoop and build ’em up with worn-out tools:

If you can make one heap of all your winnings
And risk it on one turn of pitch-and-toss,
And lose, and start again at your beginnings
And never breathe a word about your loss;
If you can force your heart and nerve and sinew
To serve your turn long after they are gone,
And so hold on when there is nothing in you
Except the Will which says to them: “Hold on!”

If you can talk with crowds and keep your virtue,
Or walk with kings–nor lose the common touch,
If neither foes nor loving friends can hurt you;
If all men count with you, but none too much,
If you can fill the unforgiving minute
With sixty seconds’ worth of distance run,
Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it,
And–which is more–you’ll be a Man, my son! (link)

What’s at the center of your universe?



Pushing Through the Dip

Quitting can look very attractive. I should know. I quit my official 9-5 job almost two months ago. Once in awhile, I wonder if I made the best decision—not out of any particular love for the previous job, but due to my distaste for quitting. Many of us are raised with the adage that “winners never quit, and quitters never win.” In general, I hate quitting anything. If I only pushed a little harder, then I’d succeed.

Yesterday, I got a better handle on why quitting isn’t always a negative when I attended a session of Seth Godin’s “The Dip Tour.” (Pam Slim does a great write up.) Seth focused on how quitting can be a good thing—as long as your goal is to get out of a Dead-end or a Cul-de-sac. One of the most obvious points he made, but an easily overlooked one, is that we’re all quitters at some point. For example, few people who took ballet as kids are still performing.

Seth tells the story of how Enzo Ferrari quit the successful Alfa Romero racing team in 1948 and started building Ferraris—not the most obvious decision—in post-war Italy. Enzo Ferrari (The client is not always right.” (link)) faced a Dip and he pushed through it, establishing the internationally recognized Ferrari brand.

Not Quitting Churchill Style

Not quitting and staying your course, pushing through the Dip, can be an equally big decision. During World War II, Winston Churchill stared down Hitler across the channel. When he took office as Prime Minister, he addressed the House of Commons, making it very clear that quitting wasn’t an option:

“You ask what is our policy. I will say, it is to wage war with all our might, with all the strength that God can give us, to wage war against a monstrous tyranny never surpassed in the dark, lamentable catalogue of human crime.

You ask what is our aim? I can answer in one word: Victory. Victory at all costs. Victory in spite of all terror. Victory however long and hard the road may be. For without victory there is no survival.” (link)

Even after the Germans swept through France, pushing England troops to the Channel, Churchill kept pushing:

“We shall not flag or fail. We shall go on to the end. We shall fight in France, we shall fight on the seas and oceans, we shall fight with growing confidence and growing strength in the air. We shall defend our island, whatever the cost may be. We shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing-grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills. We shall never surrender!” (link)

Despite Hitler’s relentless march across Europe, Churchill kept England free and democratic, efforts that made England the foundation of the Allied strategy for waging war in Europe.

To Dip or Quit

Quitting is hard. Not quitting can be even harder. But Seth did offer some ways to tell the difference between a Dip and a Dead-end.

  • Panic: If you feel panic, it’s a Dip, something you can push through. Feel nothing? It’s a Dead-end.
  • Influence: Trying to gain attention and influence people? If your ability to do so increases, you’re pushing through a Dip.
  • Progress: If measurables exist, you’re moving through a Dip. Can’t measure your progress? You’re facing a Dead-end.

We’re not all Churchills standing against invading armies or Ferraris designing legendary sports cars. However, we all face battles that force us to ask the question, “Do I quit or push through?” There’s a difference between quitting for a purpose and quitting out of fear. The same applies for pushing through the Dip.

Ultimately, yesterday’s event made me understand that I need to be engaged in projects worth my time and energy. The same applies to you. Going nowhere, beating your head against the wall accomplishes nothing. Now is the time to figure out how to go around, go under, or go over the wall. The wall is no longer your objective. It’s what’s on the other side that counts.



Thinking Differently About Silicon

History is littered with people who are different, people with bold ideas who balked at the majority mindset. Even more intriguing, these individuals may start by appealing to a niche audience, but ultimately end up in the mainstream. The steam engine, the automotive, the computer—all initially appealed to a niche audience before gaining mainstream acceptance.

The conundrum I’ve wondered about is whether it’s possible to remain different while occupying the mainstream. Does occupying the mainstream mean you forget how to think differently? And what happens when you try skip the niche (or attempt to) and go mainstream from the beginning?

Highlighting these issues is the recent angst in Silicon Valley (interesting write ups by Renee Blodgett and Anne Zelenka) over the chase for money replacing the chase for technology. The “Next Big Thing” believes its billion-dollar IPO lies in pounding down Michael Arrington‘s or Robert Scoble‘s door.

These companies have stopped thinking about how to be bold, how to be different and appealing to their niche. Instead, these companies want mainstream attention right from the beginning, ignoring the reality that you can’t be all things to everyone and experience long-term success. Blodgett sums it up perfectly:

“When I first moved here not quite three years ago, I had companies beg me to take them on, requesting that their coming out party be at Mike Arrington’s house. “That’s your idea of a PR strategy?” I asked. It didn’t seem to matter that Arrington’s audience wasn’t one that some of these companies needed to reach.”

More Than Static Relationships

I view “Web 2.0” with pleasure because it’s more than static Web pages. It’s about community and interaction. It’s about the people using the technology as much as the technology itself. These services got their start by thinking differently. What happened? Do we have to reach “Web 3.0” before new companies see a different way to reach an audience besides relying on Arrington and Scoble?

I think Albert Einstein had the right idea: “Try not to become a man of success, but rather try to become a man of value.” (link) Attention doesn’t always land where it’s due. But did the hard lessons of the first bubble go unnoticed? The companies with value, like Amazon, survived the downturn because they offered value. If Arrington and Scoble stopped blogging tomorrow, what could a company do to attract an audience?

The companies who got their start by thinking differently need to think beyond the top bloggers. The true innovators who want to move the industry forward will take the challenge. They’ll ignore obvious routes and make their own path. Once again, they’ll stand out by being different. I suspect they’ll be different enough to appeal to even the most jaded blogger, including Arrington and Scoble.



Tripping Over Predictions

It’s May 22. It’s 37 degrees. And it’s snowing. Go figure. My weatherman rightly predicted snow in May. Snow in May isn’t that unusual. We’ve even gotten snow in June and July. What’s unusual is that my weatherman got his prediction right.

The local station I watch recently hired a new weatherman to replace the outgoing weatherwoman. (Funny. Spellcheck says that last word isn’t right.) I went from being pleasantly surprised at how often she was right (forecasting is tricky) to downright aggravated at how often the new guy got it wrong.

I’m not a weather junkie. However, I’m aware mostly due to my farming family. Few things grab my father’s attention, besides his email (that’s another story), like the weather forecast. Understandable given his occupation. The weather matters like few other things do in this business.

Sometimes the forecast is accurate, like today’s snowfall. Other days you’d assume the weatherperson (spellcheck says this word is spelled right) was actually looking at airflow over South America instead of your backyard. Predictions tend to be slippery buggers. But predictors can sound so certain sometimes it’s hard not to trust the predictions. And some predictions prove more entertaining than others (I can’t vouch for the validity of each quote, but they are funny):

“It will be years—not in my time—before a woman will become Prime Minister.” -Margaret Thatcher, 1974

“That rainbow song’s no good. Take it out.” -MGM memo after first showing of “The Wizard Of Oz.”

“Radio has no future.”
“X-rays are clearly a hoax.”
“The aeroplane is scientifically impossible.” -Royal Society president William Thomson, Lord Kelvin, 1897-9.

“Forget it. No Civil War picture ever made a nickel.” -MGM executive, advising against investing in Gone With The Wind.

“Very interesting, Whittle, my boy, but it will never work.” -Professor of Aeronautical Engineering at Cambridge, shown Frank Whittle’s plan for the jet engine.

“Brain work will cause women to go bald.” -Berlin professor, 1914.

“Everything that can be invented has been invented.” -Charles H. Duell, Commissioner, US Office of Patents, 1899.

“Stocks have reached a permanently high plateau.” -Irving Fisher, Professor of Economics, Yale University, 1929

“Where a calculator on the ENIAC is equipped with 19,000 vacuum tubes and weighs 30 tons, computers in the future may have only 1,000 vacuum tubes and perhaps only weigh 1.5 tons.” -Popular Mechanics, forecasting the relentless march of science, 1949.

“640K ought to be enough for anybody.” -Bill Gates, 1981.
(Link to all quotes)

The certainty of some predictions is mind-boggling (I’d hate to think that we’d invented EVERYTHING by 1899). Others are just flat out hilarious (640K anyone?). People take comfort from predictions because they offer up a potential future.

The unknown can freak people out. I should know. Sometimes the unknown makes me a bit shaky. However, predictions can do one of two things: spur you on to something better or make it easy to quit before you ever start. My favorite are the people who ignored forward thinking ideas and then offered up the cliché, “I knew it would work all along.”

Luckily, I still have an amazingly full head of hair, and I’m patiently (ok, not so patiently) awaiting the arrival of my new 2G laptop. Predictions have value when they open your mind to new ideas and force you to think through your basic assumptions.If I’m lucky, my assumptions receive a challenge every day. However, if I believed every prediction, I’d live in a hole underground and do my best to not let my brain form a thought.

The goal isn’t to ignore predictions but to weigh their value. How many entrepreneurs would have achieved success if they’d paid attention to those predicting their failure? I suspect you wouldn’t be listening to your iPod, reading this post on a computer, or texting your friend on a device the size of a card deck.

And remember, few predictions matter unless they come true.



Explorations that Last a Lifetime

Explorers are bold by nature. They believe that something new always lies beyond the horizon. This belief pushes them past any fear of the unknown, making them the authors of their destinies. Henry Hudson, who set out to find the Northeast Passage to China declared, “you cannot fly like an eagle with the wings of a wren.”(link) I’m guessing he wished for real wings when his crew mutinied and left him floating in James Bay with his teenage son and seven crew members.

Ferdinand Magellan looked so far past the horizon he took a stance in direct opposition to the Catholic church, a hard to ignore entity in his time. “The Church says that the earth is flat, but I know that it is round, for I have seen the shadow on the moon, and I have more faith in a shadow than in the Church.”(link)

Any time you take the unknown path, an “x” factor hangs around waiting to make itself known. This factor can either be something wonderful like a new continent filled with riches or an angry indigenous tribe happy to cash in your return ticket. Magellan’s faith in the moon’s shadow proved valid although his explorations led to the “x” factor of death during battle with Philippine natives.(link)

America Wanders, Right?

In America, we’re often assigned the role of restless wanderer. But how many of us are true explorers? For instance, according to the Census Bureau, only 14% of the U.S. population changed addresses in 2005.(link) In 1948, the number was 20%. But beyond physical relocation, how often do you explore new mental avenues?

Like the Hudsons and Magellans of history, modern day explorers are challenging the idea that this is it. These explorers use code, media, and imagination to discover the unknown. What’s fascinating to me is when these explorers stop exploring. They stop anticipating that “x” factor.

Explorers Settling

Josh Porter’s recent comic and Richard MacManus’s post related to Jakob Nielsen are one example of what happens when an explorer stops looking beyond the horizon. Individuals start questioning the explorer’s validity. And once you become a settler rather than an explorer, people pay less attention.

Like the old cliché, if all you have is a hammer, everything starts to look like a nail, settled explorers judge everything on what they’ve already seen versus what they haven’t yet found. As much as I may like any one technology, the day the company decides that it can go no further is the day I join a new expedition. For me, this blog is one expedition I’ve undertaken. Any time you risk the “x” factor—in my case, no readers, possible trolls, future opportunities, etc.—you’re an explorer.

How to Not Settle

Granted, many historical explorers died on their voyages. I’m not counseling that anyone court death in support of exploration. But I do think we need to remain open to possibility. Politics are so distasteful and ugly because possibility ceases to exist when narrow definitions are employed. That’s part of the reason this “new” world of technology stays so exciting.

Boundaries remain fluid when we remain open to possibility, open to what’s over the horizon. Notice how threatened politicians are over the openness of the tech world, the potential possibilities? Even attempting to break copyright is worthy of a law. True leaders do more than maintain status quo or move backwards. They slap on their explorer hats and brave the unknown.

First grade was an adventure, senior year, not so much. But we started all over again when we ventured off to college or started that new job, the point being that new adventures will continue to pop up in life. You just have to be brave enough to leap. Explorers believe that finding something new is worth the risk. I still don’t understand all the reasons why “new” raises fear. I do understand that if we stop exploring, we stop growing, we stop believing in our potential. And potential is our capital for future success.


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