How tech cycles and Microsoft launching tees relate

Dave Winer, the father of RSS [insert humble bow here], wrote a great post this week: Soon it will be time to start over, again. It is about the tech industry and how we get lost in our own complexity, and can’t break that direction easily. So younger folks — the ones who chose not to follow the current leaders — come in and re-write the tech in a simpler way, and thus begin a new tech cycle. These young folks will in 5-10 years be replaced by another group who don’t want to get mired in the spaghetti code of years past, and bring another level of innovation.

I only disagree with one point in Dave’s article, and I do so humbly. Dave attributes the complexity to engineers, and their love of complexity. I disagree. I think the problem is that humans suck at change, particularly when that change involves thinking differently and destroying what we built before. We have pride in what we thought and built for the most part. It is difficult to deconstruct that without blaming ourselves, so we try to improve on what we’ve done, rather than re-doing.

And of course, there is the fear of not being successful with the “new way”, and thus destroying the “old way” revenue in the process. So, I am not saying it is “simple”, just that it is not due to engineers liking complexity. Most engineers I know actually really appreciate simplicity. They crave it, and often see they aren’t achieving it, but don’t see the path to how to achieve it from where they are.

I believe this is one of the reasons that Apple continues to post wins. Imagine how Apple changed their thinking with the ipod. “We build Macs. We don’t build Walkmans — a lower life form.” I can hear it being said. Steve Jobs is one of those thinkers/learners with the credibility to back him up, that gives you a company that does evolve — and even he and Apple have had their challenges.

On how he does it, I believe one key aspect is self-criticism. If you accept that you will make some wrong decisions — despite how smart you are, and how much you work — then you can rethink in new ways. The focus becomes one of learning, and I see Steve Jobs as being great at that. One simple example, after MobileMe got panned, what was Steve Job’s response? A note to the entire company that said (quoted from a Heise Online article):

“It was a mistake to launch MobileMe at the same time as iPhone 3G, iPhone 2.0 software and the App Store. We all had more than enough to do, and MobileMe could have been delayed without consequence”.

Jobs wrote, in his self critical email, that the MobileMe problems showed that Apple needed to “learn more about Internet services. And learn we will.”

I don’t think this challenge in responding to new capabilities/technologies is true just of tech companies. I wish I could say that one of my fav companies, Southwest, has made a “cycle shift”, but they haven’t. P&G made a shift about 5 years ago to focus more on bringing outside innovation in and has posted incredible success with their program. I would use them as a great example of a company that can overcome “cycle shifts” in some of their many industries. I agree with Dave that Google hasn’t shown an ability to shift yet. What companies do you think are examples that can make “cycle shifts”?

And now back to the title, an example of a company that continues to try to make a shift, but it doesn’t seem to work. I know we all have our favorite MS blunder example: my personal ones are MS’s push into push technology and the fizzle of MS Live, because I was related to both of these launches and saw them more from the inside. New is that MS is lauching a t-shirt line, which I learned from Harry McCracken’s Technologizer: Microsoft’s Latest Innovation… T-Shirts!

My fav part: They are delivering it on December 15th, which is two weeks after the Christmas selling season starts — late on shipping even their t-shirts.

My fav shirt: I’m a fan of the greenscreen … it’s simple! 😉

Microsoft Softwear Greenscreen T-shirt

Microsoft has ridden many tech cycles and they are still a significant player in our industry, so you can be successful without riding the tech cycles, but you have to be big to do it. Now, I am not thinking Microsoft wants to become a t-shirt company. They clearly have seen that t-shirts are great for brand promotion. [Aside: I love that they get that!] However, to get the brand promotion, people have to love the shirts and wear them. Here Microsoft is not playing to their strengths, like Apple did with the ipod — there was a need for good design, simplicity in that market, and most important, their customers were the type that would use the product. Microsoft is not good at hip and stylish, and their customer group isn’t known for wearing t-shirts proudly. Partnering with a rapper doesn’t get you there, but rather it confuses people.

I might buy “I used to love her”, but I need to learn more about Common’s song and make sure that’s a message I can wear. Of course, I think I’ll wait until the after Christmas sale. 😉

So, what is a message I know I can wear on my shirt today?

For every dilemma, there is an epigram
For every epigram, there is a t-shirt

Inspired by this quote: “Somewhere in the world there is an epigram fro every dilemma”, by Hendrik Willem Van Loon.

For the more detail-oriented reader, my favorite definition of epigram is an epigram itself:

What is an Epigram? A dwarfish whole;
Its body brevity, and wit its soul.
— Samuel Taylor Coleridge

The impact of timing: why this financial crisis is our biggest break

Yesterday the Guardian posted an excerpt from Malcolm Gladwell’s latest book, Outliers: The Story Of Success. I enjoy reading Gladwell’s work, even though I find it a bit rambling and missing some structure that woud improve impact. Maybe he means it that way?

The main part of the excerpt is about how “genius” can be tracked to practice/hard work, specifically narrowing to about 10,000 hours of practice being required. Good, interesting information with several fun studies and stories to back it up.

Another (more dispersed) piece of the excerpt is about timing. Here are the two points made about the “timing” of genius:

  • Take ice hockey in Canada: look at any team and you will find that a disproportionate number of players will have been born in the first three months of the year. This, it turns out, is because the cut-off date for children eligible for the nine-year-old, 10-year-old, 11-year-old league and so on is January 1. Boys who are oldest and biggest at the beginning of the hockey season are inevitably the best. And so they get the most coaching and practice, and they get chosen for the all-star team, and so their advantage increases – on into the professional game.
  • …an astonishing 14 on the [Forbes 75 richest people in history] list are Americans born within nine years of each other… [snip, snip]… almost 20% of the names come from a single generation – born between 1831 and 1840 in a single country. The list includes industrialists and financiers who are still household names today: John Rockefeller, born in 1839 (the richest of the lot); Andrew Carnegie, 1835; Jay Gould, 1836; and JP Morgan, 1837.

    [snip, snip] It was when all the rules by which the traditional economy functioned were broken and remade. What that list says is that it was absolutely critical, if you were going to take advantage of those opportunities, to be in your 20s when that transformation was happening.

    If you were born in the late 1840s, you missed it – you were too young to take advantage of that moment. If you were born in the 1820s, you were too old – your mindset was shaped by the old, pre-civil war ways.

Today, many of us are feeling limited by timining — specifically, why did this financial crisis have to hit now, just as we were hitting a stride. Re-read this sentence about why 20% of the 75 richest people in history come from one country and one period:

It was when all the rules by which the traditional economy functioned were broken and remade.

While it is scary, this financial crisis is the breaking of our traditional economy. What is amazing is that this is happening on a global scale. It isn’t just about one country, but about one large global economy that is being broken. Now, it is our time to remake it.

Since many of you reading my blog are near my age, you will also be thinking about the next sentence that said you had to be in your 20s to take advantage of that. But read the next paragraph: This is your choice. Don’t be stuck in your mindset that was shaped by the old, pre-global economy, pre-financial correction days. You can look at our situation as Sequoia did in their famous RIP Good Times session for their entrepreneurs, or you can look at this as a new economy. How will it be remade? What do you know now that will be wrong for the future? What will be right?

When I read Titan, I thought I could learn a great deal from Mr. Rockefeller, but I never imagined I would be living in similar times as him. This excerpt is making me think differently on this, and I am feeling excited and ready for the challenge — even though you have to divide by 2 to get me to 20.

What is on my shirt today? A quote from Madeline Albright at a recent Wellesley dinner (see #3):

 Be confident
but not certain

I would add a third important point to Mr. Gladwell’s points: practice, timing, and support. Mr. Gladwell mentions this too in passing. For the hockey players, it is the ones that go the most coaching. In speaking of Mr. Gates and Mr. Joy it was access to computers (and specifically the people who gave them that access). Remember to support each other!

What's in my bag?

I have a heavy briefcase-backpack. Everyone asks me why. My reason is that I have an overwhelming need to be prepared. So, if you want to check out the contents of a workaholic, overly prepared, frequent global traveler, check out my annotated picture on flickr:

[Stinky IE won’t show the picture embedded with annotations. You can see it on flickr here.]

My top 5:

Important technology for me:

  • A microphone and speakers for good quality conference calls.
  • An Apple Airport so I always have my own wireless network.
  • Bluetooth headsets for my phone and my computer. I pace while I talk.
  • An extra battery for my laptop.
  • My camera with Eye-Fi wireless SD card.

There isn’t a lot of room for anything else, but sometimes I do carry an umbrella!

What’s on my shirt today? One of my favorite CNN shirts:

This flight’s late 92.3% of the time

You can buy it here. I will tell you that your fellow passengers will like it, but the gate agents do not!

POVERTY: POOR, DESTITUTION, SCARCITY, DEFICIENCY

I have left many posts site in my drafts folder, but I can’t let this day go by without supporting Blog Action Day. The purpose of Blog Action Day is to bring focus to an issue that matters to all of us by putting the power of blogging behind one topic. This year’s topic is Poverty.

I’m not an expert on poverty, and haven’t been an anti-poverty advocate other than occasional donations and volunteer work. As I was thinking about this post, I did what I normally do when I start thinking about a topic: I went to the Oxford English Dictionary to get a better sense of the topic based on definitions. That’s what drove the subject line and the structure of this post.

I have to admit that I felt a bit of unease and somewhat frustration… why haven’t I done more? As I thought through this more over the last month, I remembered something my grandmother, Zella Beattie, used to say to me: Use your talents.

It sounds simple, too simple or broad for impact. Aren’t we always using our talents… except when we get lazy? What she meant though is along the lines of what Marcus Buckingham is teaching regarding focusing on your strengths. This leads to the question of what are your strengths, and how can the regularly be used to help the state of poverty, in your city, country, continent, or world — as part of your daily life, along with special actions, like donations and volunteering — official or unofficial.

So, as a high-tech executive, where are my strengths best used to act against poverty? Here are my top 5:

  • Job creation. A great deal is reported in the news about layoffs, what isn’t reported is job creation. The most thorough statistics I found are from the Small Business Administration in the US, reporting employment across companies from 1990-2005. In only two years of that 15 year span has there been a decrease in net employment numbers. Remarkable record. I am a business builder — less poor.
  • Training. I believe in focusing a business on skilled work — anything else possible should be outsourced, as it isn’t how you will win. Skilled work also means you need to train employees, making an investment in them. Training ==> higher productivity ==> better margins ==> more money to invest back into the business. With a focus on training, along with increasing your business value, you are increasing the overall wealth of the population by adding more skill — less deficiency.
  • Vendor relationships. Understand your vendors in the same way you understand your customers. What are their goals and how do you fit in? Select those vendors that are important to your business and spend the time building the relationship. Together, you will find efficiencies pretty easily, and you will also find new business opportunities regularly. Being strategic about your vendors means a healthier, stronger business — less scarcity.
  • Community action. When it comes to community action that supports your business, my hero is Danny Meyer, who started Union Square Cafe and has turned it into a very successful restaurant and catering group in NYC — one of the toughest places in the world to succeed with a restaurant. He’s had a community-action approach with every restaurant with an eye to the community impact. I highly recommend his book, Setting the Table, to learn more about a community-focus for your business — less destitution in your area.
  • Mentoring. As an executive, realistically, you can impact 1-3 companies at most. But you have a multiplier in the people that you provide mentoring. Mentoring can be formal or informal. Intuit had an incredible internship program that was designed in a way that increased mentoring opportunities. I have wanted to start a similar program via a network of start-ups and growth businesses to provide strength in numbers. Thanks to Blog Action Day for bringing this back to the forefront of my mind. I believe that through mentoring the multiplier effect will keep that job creation number high. Go out and inspire others for less poverty!

Thanks for listening. Writing this post has helped me think about some new ways I can have an impact on poverty in my everyday life. I thank the folks at Blog Action Day for encouraging this type of thought exercise, as I know it will lead to actions. Please take some time to visit their site, as there is a wealth of resources and ideas on what you can do to help!

On my shirt today, in honor of my grandmother:

Use your talents.

The top, summit, apex, very end… and how you spend your time

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, “the top, summit, apex, very end” is the first definition of the noun tip. The definition tells you that there is more behind this thing called a tip, as it is only the summit, or the end, not the full story.

Via a newsletter from Gazelles, I just came across a great tip for how to spend your more time on income-producing activities that I’m going to try.

Alex Lopez with Sydney-based Quantify Corporation uses a simple technique to double his income-producing activities. He divides his to-do list into two columns. Column one is labeled “Non-income Producing Activities” (Red) and Column two is labeled “Income Producing Activities” (Green). He then forces himself to place a to-do item in one of the two columns. When he first started, his non-income producing activities outnumbered his income-producing activities by a two to one ratio. Over time, he’s been able to flip that ratio.

Yes, you can quibble with yourself about whether something is income producing or not, but what is important is that you are thinking about it. And you can quibble about the reasons why this helps and shouldn’t you be doing something deeper to change what you do. Or you can take this as a “point” and just try it. You’ll learn and improve — even without the full story of why you do what you do behind it. Thanks to Gazelles and Alex for sharing this tip! I’ll tell you how my use goes.

And furthering the tip theme, we had a project at the Innovation Lab at Intuit that involved tips. The basic premise was that many people didn’t have time to read a How To, but people needed Tips to get them going in the right direction on something. Tip: When someone asks for your help, ask whether they are “tip” mode, or “how to” mode, and adjust your answer accordingly.

What is on my shirt is one of the best tips I’ve ever received. It comes from my family:

chose happiness

That’s a summit with terrific paths to and from…. enjoy yours!

The wisdom to know the difference

People that work with me know that I am constantly searching for benchmarks: “Who is the best in the world at this” and how do we learn from them and compare to them? So, when July started looking soft for us, I started calling other retailers and other execs.

To set the stage, our first half of 2008 was incredible. We delivered 97% of a very aggressive plan. Very impressive work from a great team! July started looking soft, but we made a good month in the end. And now August, while we are still posting solid year over year growth, it isn’t where we were, or planned to be. With other execs telling me that they are seeing the same, why am I still feeling frustrated? Am I lacking the wisdom to know the difference between what I can control and what I cannot?

I could say that, but I won’t.
Remember when Bob Nardelli “resigned” from Home Depot? Mr. Nardelli and the board disagreed over his compensation being tied more closely to stockholder gains. He complained that that share price is the one measure that he cannot control. (Read Business Week’s summary.) While I have strong views about the public markets leading to bad executive decisions regarding short-term versus long-term results, I do believe CEOs are in control of their share price. (This does not mean CEOs can always make share prices go up.) Examples are given in the article that while Mr. Nardelli was doing great in some areas, there were other areas, like employee and customer satisfaction, where there were some big questions.
So, yes, the economy impacts my business. But it is my and my team’s responsibility to respond to the economy. It is about risks and contingencies. We need to be prepared. Moving quickly means less reliance on how you did things in the past and more on how you will do them in the future. How do you prepare for that? How do you keep on top of things?

Focus. This is where I have fallen short in the last six months. As things were going well, I let too many visions expand, and didn’t prepare enough for the Summer, and possible impacts of a typically slow season combined with a slow economy. This led to things like missed hand-offs over vacations, not matching an promotional campaign from last year, not pushing some shop partner launches before vacations, etc. All small details, that have overall had a bigger impact.

We are doing too much, missing important details. We need to step back and do less, execute exceptionally well. What are our critical few? Over the next few weeks, I will be working with our team to narrow our list of priorities, so we can deliver an outstanding Fall and Holiday season.

As I think about making tough decisions on priorities, I remember another benchmark I like to keep in mind, a 2006 article from Fortune. It was a study of Fortune 500 companies, comparing founder-led companies to those led by hired executives, like me. Founder-led companies (26 of the 500) overall performed seven percentage points better than the rest of the Fortune 500 over a ten-year period from 1995 to 2005. The two theories presented for why:

  • Founders care more. “Their companies are their life’s work, so they’re more likely to embrace long-term strategies.”
  • Founders tend to be industry experts. “They’re less likely to make the kind of disastrous ‘diversifying’ acquisitions that give M&A a bad name. ” (Note, in smaller companies think diversifying activities versus acquisitions.)

Focus on the long-term and on fewer things. Hired executives can learn that from successful founders. I want to be the best by many measures, not just those that are convenient, or fit me or my team well. Sometimes we use our wisdom to say that there are things we cannot control, using those as an excuse to not master what we can control. I think I would add an amendment to the Serenity Prayer:

Grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change;
the courage to change the things I can;
the wisdom to know the difference;
and the perspective to challenge that wisdom, when needed.

What is on my shirt today? One of my favorite Susan B. Anthony quotes:

Failure is impossible

P.S. Failure is impossible is also the title of an exceptional book about Ms. Anthony by Lynn Sherr. I highly recommend it, especially during an election season in the US. Voting is a right and a privilege.

Failure and success

When have you spoken publicly about a swift kick you got after you failed at something? Hooray for David Neeleman, Jim Donald, and Ed Zander for having the courage to talk to Fortune about their “Lessons of the Fall“. Each revealed a great deal about his fairly recent experience being canned by his board after years of success, and what led up to that event. The points I most appreciated:

  • Regarding boards. Mr. Neeleman said, “… looking at the company through this little hole once a quarter at a four-hour meeting — board members don’t know that much about the company.” I have to admit that reading this line, I expected him to then nicely bash his board for bad advice. Rather he said, “I would have been much more engaged with the board… You have to give them an accurate view of what’s going on… That’s the job of the CEO, and I failed.” We often think those above us know more than we do. Often times, they don’t. They most often have more experience and can give us perspectives, ideas and judgements based on that experience. It is our job to make sure they know what is important in this specific situation, so they can help us.
  • Regarding activists. Mr. Zander was asked directly about dealing with Carl Icahn, definitely a powerful activist as a shareholder. His advice: “…what decisions I had to make, what the long-term strategy was – don’t do anything for the short-term. And sometimes that’s painful for short-term shareholders.” From this, I believe Mr. Zander made the decisions he felt were right, despite the activists knowing the consequences. I respect that. In the end, it is your face you have to look at in the morning, not the activists. Listen, and then act in a way that allows you to look at yourself with pride. I think Mr. Zander did.
  • Regarding Moms. Most of us have a “mom” in our lives, be it our natural mom or one that has picked us up along the way. They play important roles in keeping the right balance between incredible belief in us, and also, keeping us in check. The most real part of this interview was when Mr. Donald said the hardest and first thing to do was to call his mom and tell her after he had lost his job with Starbucks. He was upfront with her, and also reassured her that everything was fine. He faced it quickly and with grace, but made it clear that it was the toughest day he’s faced.

I respect each of these leaders more now. Thanks for showing the rest of us success in failure, along with your many successful successes.

What is on my shirt today? My favorite failure saying:

What would you do
      if you knew
 you could not fail?

Now, stop reading and go to it!

P.S. Some of you have asked for more on the IronMan event. First, thanks for asking. Second, there is a post on the Spreadshirt blog about it that was taken from an internal newsletter interview. Hope you enjoy it!