Archive for March, 2008


You Can Say No

Computer Sayes NoDo you sometimes believe that the only answer available to you is “yes?”

J.J. Toothman prompted this idea during our conversation after I posted Glossing Over History. In answer to another comment, I indicated that I wouldn’t be casting a vote for any presidential candidate. J.J. responded:

Wait a second, Britt. You said “I doubt I’ll vote for any of the presidential candidates” – are you saying you aren’t going to vote for any nominee from the 2 major parties, or are you saying you arent going to vote?

Here was my response:

…to clarify, I will vote in this election. There are important local and state offices up this election cycle. However, I choose to not cast a vote for any presidential candidate, major or minor party. For me, because I believe none of the candidates is truly representative of me, I can’t in good conscience give him or her my vote…So to sum up, I’m taking the opportunity to exercise my right to vote “no” by not voting for any presidential candidate.

Now, substitute any aspect of your life for voting in the election, and how often do you believe “yes” is the only option open to you?

For example, what if many of the individuals caught short in the recent housing upheaval had said no to the idea that everyone, in spite of their financial circumstances, should strive for home ownership? What if Bear Stearns had said no to playing in mortgage-backed securities? What if Americans ,with over 60% of the population classified as obese, said no to the fast food guy asking if they want to biggie-size their order?

Consider the prevailing attitudes that make it difficult to say no. People want to live in their own homes. Bear Stearns was doing what other investment banks were doing. For pennies more, you can get twice the food.

When are you saying yes when saying no might be an equally valid option and to your benefit?


(Photo courtesy of Vampire Bear. Some rights reserved.)


Language in the Financial Markets

Our economic markets are a mess. If you follow the noise on CNBC or regularly scan what passes for journalism in magazines like Smart Money, you might think the world is coming to an end. Beyond our fascination with the numbers, we forget that words play a powerful role in our financial markets. Consider the following statements with each happening approximately a week or so apart by the same person:

“Bear Stearns’ balance sheet, liquidity and capital remain strong.” (link)

“The past week has been an incredibly difficult time for Bear Stearns. This transaction represents the best outcome for all of our constituencies based upon the current circumstances. I am incredibly proud of our employees and believe they will continue to add tremendous value to the new enterprise.” (link)

Both statements, made by Alan Schwartz, President and Chief Executive officer of Bear Stearns, cover the recent action taken by the Federal Reserve (our central bank, spending our money). The Fed set up a buyer for Bear Stearns, JPMorgan, and took financial responsibility ($30 billion) for the most questionable liabilities. Note that The Wall Street Journal calls the Fed’s move “unprecedented.” (link)

Don’t Ignore the Words

While I take issue with the Fed’s actions from an economic standpoint, I’m most interested in how little attention is paid to the words surrounding the events. For example, JPMorgan, in an effort to appease both its shareholders and Bear Stearns’ shareholders positioned the purchase as a benefit for everyone involved.

“JPMorgan Chase stands behind Bear Stearns,” said Jamie Dimon, Chairman and Chief Executive Officer of JPMorgan Chase. “Bear Stearns’ clients and counterparties should feel secure that JPMorgan is guaranteeing Bear Stearns’ counterparty risk. We welcome their clients, counterparties and employees to our firm, and we are glad to be their partner.”

Dimon added, “This transaction will provide good long-term value for JPMorgan Chase shareholders. This acquisition meets our key criteria: we are taking reasonable risk, we have built in an appropriate margin for error, it strengthens our business, and we have a clear ability to execute.” (link)

Long-term, the deal may end up a great one for JPMorgan, but I’d argue that the language covers up a bigger issue pointed out by The Wall Street Journal:

Consider: The whole credit crisis largely reflects a lack of good information…A spectacular bankruptcy would shine a bright line on this mess. To start, Bear’s trading counterparties and other creditors would have to show themselves and explain their positions to a public examiner. And then bankruptcy lawyers would have to pore through each and every one of Bear’s assets and liabilities, making the full autopsy public.

Of course, such a full accounting would take at least a year and likely longer. But we’ve already endured almost a year of an opaque credit crisis. What if, in another year, we’re still in the middle of the crisis with no new real, third-party information to guide us out? The information provided by Bear’s bankruptcy would then be invaluable. (link)

Going back to an earlier post, I posit that our impatience with language and our pursuit of of immediate gratification impacts current monetary policy and not in a good way. When did we stop being a society that saw value in long-term investments? When did we start buying into the hype, as a group, that getting rich quick was not only possible but almost guaranteed to everyone?

Building Something

When was the last time you knew your money was being spent or invested on something bigger, something with a larger impact? In the movie It’s a Wonderful Life, Jimmy Stewart’s character, George Bailey while trying to convince depositors to not sell their Building and Loan shares to the “evil” Mr. Potter or to close their accounts, has a great line about why the money isn’t just sitting in the safe:

You’re thinking of this place all wrong. As if I had the money back in a safe. The money’s not here. Your money’s in Joe’s house…right next to yours. And in the Kennedy house, and Mrs. Macklin’s house, and a hundred others. Why, you’re lending them the money to build, and then, they’re going to pay it back to you as best they can. Now what are you going to do? Foreclose on them?…Now wait…now listen…now listen to me. I beg of you not to do this thing. If Potter gets hold of this Building and Loan there’ll never be another decent house built in this town…Can’t you understand what’s happening here? Don’t you see what’s happening? Potter isn’t selling. Potter’s buying! And why? Because we’re panicky and he’s not. That’s why. He’s picking up some bargains. Now, we can get through this thing all right. We’ve got to stick together, though. We’ve got to have faith in each other. (link)

I believe we’ve stopped thinking about our money actually working for something bigger and instead, we’ve focused on quick results that potentially leave us with liquid funds to fuel our consumer habits. What if we actually invested in companies that did things, measurable things? What if we looked around our local communities for investment opportunities? What if we picked companies that could explain, using easy words, what they do and why they add value? If companies could talk plainly about what they do, do you think we’d care as much about stock prices?



Glossing Over History

Watching the HBO miniseries John Adams, I’m struck by how we whitewash history in classrooms and conversation. We are perhaps most shortsighted in our view of the historical figures that have risen to mythic proportions. Often we’re left thinking of these people as two-dimensional characters that reside only on our rapidly devaluing dollars. These individuals, for all their great achievements, were still human, and thus, in my mind, more appealing.

I fear our willingness to overlook the very humanity of the individuals we admire, in favor of their great exploits, puts us at risk of chasing away the very people we need to lead in society. Consider the men and women who seek public office. While many are true representatives of their communities, others still hold their seats because equally or more qualified candidates refuse to submit to the nonsense that passes as a modern-day election.

Within the business community, the most able are sometimes passed over for the ones with the smoothest tongues. The company scandals—Enron and Worldcom—were brought about because these companies were led by people more interested in appearing successful versus actually being successful. I’ve thought about this reality when compared to what we see in modern day politics. We want our political figures to speak of change, but we’re rarely interested in true change. We want our leaders to say something of value, but we punish them for honest speaking.

This past week saw the political world caught up in the words of Barack Obama’s pastor, Jeremiah Wright. Attention then fell on Obama as he responded to critics who questioned his membership in Wright’s congregation with a speech many believe made history. For others, it still wasn’t enough. Once again, instead of focusing on the individual’s credentials, we allowed the media to drive the conversation towards requiring Obama to take responsibility for the words of someone else. Do we really believe that Obama’s pastor choice defines whether he is qualified to be president? Aren’t there other questions that would be better qualifiers?

Ultimately, history’s allure lies in our ability to assign responsibility with supposedly perfect hindsight. We can define the heroes, loathe the villains, and laugh at the jesters. Living in the moment requires more patience, but our fast-paced lives don’t allow for the consideration we give to those in the past. And for many, yesterday or last week IS history, but we’re unwilling to recognize how our humanity makes it difficult for living figures to reach mythic proportions without falling off the pedestal.


SXSW 2008 Highlights

Post SXSW, I’ve thought about some of the inconsistencies highlighted by the event:

Just because you can doesn’t mean you should. By now few people haven’t heard about the Zuckerberg/Lacy keynote. For those unfamiliar with the details, Jeff Jarvis does a fair write up. At its core, the crowd’s reaction wasn’t about actively joining a conversation, but about disruption. I didn’t realize that heckling the person on stage was acceptable until I started attending tech conferences.

I totally understand why the audience was frustrated with Lacy’s interview, but please explain me to how yelling at her from the audience accomplished anything. Rachel Happe perfectly captures the disconnect between the positives we normally associate with social media versus what happened in the keynote:

I’m not disturbed that there was a great deal of criticism of the interview – that is completely fair. What I am very disturbed by is that the audience aggressively heckled Sarah during her interview….based on the social validation they got through Twitter to do so. Ironically in this case, social media is enabling people to be extremely disrespectful and anti-social. If people didn’t like the interview, why didn’t they quietly leave?

Sometimes revolutions are called for…over the lack of civil liberties, economic freedoms, fair wages. But not over a poor interview. We all need to remember that what makes for good social experiences is a little respect —for everyone. (link)

The best things didn’t always happen in panels. Unlike my first year at SXSW where I went to a panel 95% of the time, I only made it to panels about 50% of the conference this year. I did have some client work that demanded attention, but the rest of my time was spent talking to people. While SXSW probably offers one of the most diverse and talented panel options, I found that creating my own mini-panels was as, if not more, rewarding.

Part of this experience was enhanced by the Bloghaus, a meeting room set up with wi-fi, plug-ins, food, and great people. My very good friend Chris Brogan, who spent even less time than me in panels, twittered, “The BlogHaus is worth $500 to me. You?” (link) The tweets in response were generally positive. I’ve decided that while panel options are important for determining which conferences to attend, the other attendees are just as important.

Technology doesn’t always provide the answer. I suspect most everyone knows this fact. However, given how excited we get by the latest gadget or gizmo, I think we sometimes forgot how often humans solve the problem. For example, the previously mentioned Chris had his site crash during SXSW, right after he and Julien Smith published a Change This manifesto, Trust Economies.

After fighting with customer service reps who kept saying everything would be fixed in an hour, we ran into Scott Beale of Laughing Squid in my hotel lobby. During our conversation, the website issue came up, and Scott offered some options not previously suggested by Chris’s many interactions with customer service. While the advice didn’t correct all the hosting issues, the relief that Scott had some helpful advice made a huge difference to Chris.

For all the power of groups, sometimes one on one matters more. I spent most of my lunches having great conversations with Dave Seah. We met last year at SXSW and became friends when I gathered up the courage to approach him after recognizing him from his blog. While we’ve communicated frequently throughout the year, there was something extra special about spending time together in person, sharing ideas and talking about current projects.

I also had time this year to reconnect with Rachel Clarke, the person responsible for getting me to SXSW in the first place. Then, I had the pleasure of meeting Jane Quigley (she blogs here and here), a classy lady who took the time to share her insight of the industry. These quiet conversations were absolute bliss after the sometimes loud and chaotic interactions that can happen at SXSW. All told, as much as I enjoy the varied and interesting back and forth within a group, sometimes, one on one matters more.

I think that’s what drives SXSW success: each attendee ultimately determines their conference experience. The inconsistencies I’ve noted don’t take away from the experience, except, perhaps, for the first one. The first inconsistency focuses on something necessary to make conferences work: respect.


If panelists believe that they’ll be yelled at by the audience because they aren’t “delivering,” how long until people say, “no thanks?” If attendees didn’t feel confident that they could approach each other without being blown off, how long until they stop registering? (BTW, hypothetical @SXSW. I haven’t seen or had this happen).

Each of the things I like most about SXSW hinge on respect, respect for the individual, respect for his or her work, etc. Perhaps the people who heckled during the Zuckerberg keynote believe that they were in the right or that they wouldn’t mind if someone did the same to them. However, I think the other things we take so much pleasure in are put at risk when we forget the basics. I think the old but true saying still applies, do unto others as you would have them do unto. I sometimes wonder why this community appears to forget it.


Postscript: During the next two weeks, I’m in the process of moving into a new house. Between my business and painting, posting might be a little light, so please be patient. I’ll post pictures of the finished project.


Finding Ideas in the Noise

While the main topic of this blog is the use of words, underlying the words are ideas. It’s one of the main reasons I come to conferences like SXSW and attend presentations like the one by Jason Fried of 37signals. I want exposure to ideas that differ from my daily routine. So I intentionally look for people who know more than I do or present an opinion different from the one I already hold.

In this instance, I know some people are less than impressed by Fried & Co. Regardless of your opinion, I think their ideas are worth considering, if for nothing else than how clearly and intelligently they present them. Yes, you may not agree, but you won’t be the worse for having been open to the possibility of their ideas adding value.

Early on, Fried highlighted words that they try to keep out of 37signals’ conversations because of the negative feelings they generate: need, can’t, easy, only, and fast (e.g., “I need this feature to go to market.”; “That’s easy to do, right?”). Consider this idea for a moment: words have power, so imagine the impact of identifying words within your network that get in the way of getting things done. However, I’m not a total fan girl.

I was struck when he said that words are the cheapest and the easiest thing to fix versus, for example, doing a complete redesign of a website. I can see why initially, one might agree with this advice. Unfortunately, unless you suddenly uncover the secret sauce for how to write about you and what your company may do, the words aren’t cheap or easy. I also found it funny that after putting “easy” on his list of words they avoid, he described words as being easy to fix. Although, he did say later that we don’t pay enough attention to the words and too much to the pixels.

To me, the concept that the words are the easiest solution makes the assumption that the original idea is accurate. If the new words are still describing a fallacy, they haven’t addressed the issue that drove the need for new words. Instead, the new words create an illusion that the problem is solved. I think before you can determine if new words solve the problem, you have to determine if the original idea is worthy of them.

I’ve seen many clients struggle with this problem. They want content—brochures, websites, white papers—that defines their brand, but often aren’t 100% sure of what that brand represents, which makes finding the right words a challenge. If you don’t have a goal of increasing the value of the conversation, you’re potentially distracting the very people your trying to reach. When you choose words with care, I believe that your attention to detail will show. You may not appeal to everyone, but you will appeal to the people who are best suited to you, which takes me to the other highlight of Fried’s presentation.

Fried walked through why 37signals takes the approach that they’d rather have customers grow out of their products versus attempting to grow into them. What a novel idea. Haven’t we reached the point where the notion of cradle to grave business stopped being realistic, or desirable for that matter? I’m surprised at how frequently I run into people that buy into the notion that competitiveness and success requires being all things to all people, ultimately not really appealing to anyone.

What if you took the approach that you either want people to love you or hate you, totally skipping over indifference? I think this attitude makes pursuing one’s ideas, one’s passions, a simpler feat, not necessarily easy, but more straightforward. Your ideas and words become focused on creating an experience that attracts people with similar goals. However, the trick remains to stay open and accessible, even to the ideas you disagree with and to the people that hate you.

For me, keeping these ideas in mind does make choosing the right words easier. I suspect you’ll also find that pulling out useful ideas from the noise becomes easier as your focus settles on what matters most to you.



Making Compromises

This morning, I’m sitting in the Denver airport, waiting for my flight to Austin and SXSW. Sitting here, I’m reminded of how relatively easy we find it to come and go. I’m also reminded that there’s a potential price for all the coming and going. For example, I’m not a morning person, both mentally and physically. Events that require me awake and going before 7 or 8 in the morning, like catching a plane for SXSW, leave me drained and sometimes make me ill. For these same reasons I prefer to to work or to exercise in the afternoon or evening versus first thing in the morning. If you’re wondering where I’m going with this train of thought, hold on for just a second longer.

To be a part of the coming and going, we make compromises and choose options that we might not otherwise select. Perhaps the commonality of these compromises has made us immune to wondering if we really need to make them. In my case, I know that flying early in the morning has physical repercussions for me, but in my desire to get to Austin as early as possible, I made a compromise. There are later flights at times that would better fit my body clock, but I chose misery for several hours to get in several hours earlier. I’m still debating if it’s worth it.

In a recent edition of The Atlantic, I saw an article about the issues associated with multi-tasking. Multi-tasking requires several compromises that, again, we often give little thought to. On the one hand, we’re told we can do it all, particularly with the help of technology, and on the other, we don’t realize we’re about to be hit by the truck until it happens:

We all remember the promises. The slogans. They were all about freedom, liberation. Supposedly we were in handcuffs and wanted out of them. The key that dangled in front of us was a microchip.

“Where do you want to go today?” asked Microsoft in a mid-1990s ad campaign. The suggestion was that there were endless destinations—some geographic, some social, some intellectual—that you could reach in milliseconds by loading the right devices with the right software. It was further insinuated that where you went was purely up to you, not your spouse, your boss, your kids, or your government. Autonomy through automation.

This was the embryonic fallacy that grew up into the monster of multitasking.

Human freedom, as classically defined (to think and act and choose with minimal interference by outside powers), was not a product that firms like Microsoft could offer, but they recast it as something they could provide. A product for which they could raise the demand by refining its features, upping its speed, restyling its appearance, and linking it up with all the other products that promised freedom, too, but had replaced it with three inferior substitutes that they could market in its name:

Efficiency, convenience, and mobility.

For proof that these bundled minor virtues don’t amount to freedom but are, instead, a formula for a period of mounting frenzy climaxing with a lapse into fatigue, consider that “Where do you want to go today?” was really manipulative advice, not an open question. “Go somewhere now,” it strongly recommended, then go somewhere else tomorrow, but always go, go, go—and with our help. But did any rebel reply, “Nowhere. I like it fine right here”? Did anyone boldly ask, “What business is it of yours?” Was anyone brave enough to say, “Frankly, I want to go back to bed”?

What compromises do you make to keep going? Even more intriguing have you found a place where you’re content to be, regardless of the people telling you that you should always be going?



Assembly Line Thinking

Duvel Assembly LineThe assembly line, courtesy of Henry Ford’s desire to make the automobile available to the masses, is an example of sheer efficiency that still amazes. The growth of American industry during the last century, I believe, lies in its adoption, but I also believe America’s future as an industry innovator is at risk if we don’t modify our assembly line mentality a bit.

We’ve applied assembly line thinking to just about every area of life. Public school, restaurants, and even airport security have adopted these practices. While some industries benefit, others are harmed by the lack of individual attention to detail. Sadly, the ones affected the most are the outliers of our population. If your tastes and your interests run down the middle, you’re set for life. Stray from the norm and you’ll become lost. In spite of the norms, society isn’t totally unwilling to change.

Chris Anderson’s Long Tail concept does an excellent job of capturing this changing attitude. In some ways, however, the Long Tail still occupies what’s perceived as the extreme. In our chase to capture ever more market share, we’ve confused quantity with quality. A current client has adopted the practice of vetting his customers and unless they meet certain criteria, he turns them away. The interesting part? My client is actively growing his business, but believes his client profile plays an invaluable role in the ultimate success of his business.

What’s Enough?

Adopting a less can be more approach appears to have its own rewards. I’m often asked when I plan to hire full-time employees. My answer often surprises. I have no plans to ever hire employees. My choice to work with a network of skilled individuals, equally committed to their own businesses, helps ensure that my work doesn’t slip into an assembly line. The second most common question that pops up is, “When do you plan on selling out and retiring?” This question usually only comes from people completely unaware of my business model. I’m the product or more accurately, what I produce is the product. That makes it a little difficult to sell my business without me, which defeats my plan to remain my own boss. Both these questions, however, are representative of our changing perceptions of what holds value.

For example, historically, when families started businesses, they employed extended family and gave future generations an almost guaranteed form of employment. Now, the expectation when someone starts a business focuses on when it will be sold for an obscene amount of money. People still chase things bigger than money, but money enters the conversation more often than is used to. Apparently many of us believe we’re only one IPO away from lifelong wealth.

Showing Your Passion

This new reality brings me back around to where I started. Assembly lines have their place and value, but they aren’t a one-size fits all solution. And while money represents a valid end goal, its potential to fulfill your passion feels very temporary. I’m probably in the minority, but if money is your only driver, customers can sense it. Instead of leading a community revolution, your market will be determined by whether someone else can duplicate your product versus duplicating the experience you offer.

If people can’t sense your passion, it’s difficult for them to feel passionate, too, making it difficult to build a sustainable, long-term audience. I was reminded of this cause and effect in Kathy Sierra‘s keynote at E-Tech this morning. Determine what you want to be really good at, commit the necessary time, and concentrate your efforts. You can also take cues from the most passionate of followers—die-hard sports fans.

Rain or shine, these people support their teams, often for little or no reward except for the chance to be there to share the excitement when the team wins. On top of that, they buy the gear and publicly identify themselves with their teams whenever possible. You can’t produce that kind of passion with assembly line thinking. What are you doing to create the loyalty that fills a football stadium when the wind chill registers 23 below*?


(Image courtesy of pickinjim2006. Some rights reserved.)

*The Green Bay Packers and the New York Jets NFC title game was played at Lambeau Field where the temperature at kick off was -1, with a wind chill of -23. (link)

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March 2008
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