Tuesday, February 23, 2016

Is that a best of breed, out of the box ninja?

Perhaps I saw it on LinkedIn.

I don't recall the specific details, but the item talked about signs of a poor organization. One of those signs was referring to your employees as "ninjas."

Now perhaps it's worthwhile to review the actual definition of the term ninja:

a member of a feudal Japanese society of mercenary agents, highly trained in martial arts and stealth (ninjutsu) who were hired for covert purposes ranging from espionage to sabotage and assassination.

I would be willing to bet that most organizations are not feudal organizations, and that they don't want their employees to sneak up on people and kill them.

Well, at least I'd be willing to say that organizations don't endorse killing people. Feudalism might be wonderful from their perspective.

So one day, I thought I'd find a company that actually used the term ninja to see what it was really talking about, and found this - a blog post seeking a "go-to-market ninja."

Even the hiring company admitted that they probably couldn't get a real ninja, and therefore would settle for "people who were ninja-like." I guess that means that they won't kill their enemies; they'll just laugh at them or something.

Unfortunately, the company's love of cliches did not stop with the misuse of the term ninja.

This ninja’s goal? To manage the 4 members of the Outreach Team and level-up our sales and marketing presence in the community–swiftly and with monster-truck force.

Ninjas AND monster trucks? But wait - it gets better.

Imperfect is a mission-driven startup...

As opposed to a startup with no mission whatsoever. Or perhaps the founders are practicing Roman Catholics. Forgiveness certainly plays a theme in this mission:

Imperfect is on a mission to find a home for these misshapen fruits and veggies in people’s fridges by selling them for a 30-50% discount with a lovable, hip brand.

Hint from an old (over 25) geezer - if you have to say you're hip, you're not.

Even if you're a lovable, hip monster-truck ninja.

Thursday, February 18, 2016

#page462 No, I am not smarter than Robert Scoble - or Matt

Way back in 2013, I wrote a post entitled "#page462 What will the company that replaces Walmart (and Amazon) look like?" In short, I proposed that such a store would have zero inventory costs and minimal employee costs - the store would essentially be a brand, and the product people would provide the inventory and the sales staff.

Kind of like Uber, when you think of it.

Of course, because the post is over two years old, some of the statements in the post are already woefully out of date.

What if we had a company that could do the business that Walmart did, but with a lot less employees and with no inventory - AND could do it by maintaining brick-and-mortar stores where people could walk in and IMMEDIATELY purchase products, unlike Amazon where you might have to wait a day (or longer) to get your stuff?

Apparently I hadn't considered same-day delivery.

Fast forward to the near-present. First, Matt recently provided a comment on my original post, which I am reproducing in full:

Um...that is already done in most grocery stores. The vendors pay for shelf space, salesmen come in and order the product, delivery guys bring it in and stick it in the back, some other people stock the shelves. Want an end cap? Thats gonna cost you. What your product on the head (rather than the tail) end of the aisle? Thats gonna cost you. Wanna drop a pallet in the center aisle for a big sale? Give us a better price and we'll keep the extra. I did that myself for a pop company. Granted, the store pays for the products, but the vendors stock it, and take it off the trucks. When I worked in the stores, there was pop/soda guys, pizza guys, chip guys, bread guys, cracker/cookie guys, magazine guys, greeting card guys, coffee guys, and even feminine products guys (though I rarely saw him...apparently he only comes around about this time of the month).

The only real difference between your example and what actually happens is:
1. the vendors are only in the store for a couple hours a day
2. the store is billed for the product, but it may actually sell before its paid for

Second, Robert Scoble posted something on Amazon Pulse. I won't reprint the whole thing, but here's a relevant excerpt:

This week I visited a retail store of the future in downtown Palo Alto called B8ta. Not only is it the first store where you can test bleeding edge products like the new Avegant Glyph, but it’s quite unusual in its open use of cameras to study customers in new ways, and its open adoption of “showrooming.”

What’s showrooming? That’s where customers come in, physically check out a product and then buy that product online for a cheaper price.

B8ta has turned that business model around. Manufacturers like Avegant pay a slotting fee of around $1,000 a month for a small display area. That way the store is pretty profitable even if it never sells a product, but of course, sales are great.

Note that B8ta has some differences from my "Empoprisorium" - in Scoble's world, you would actually leave the store (or go to your phone) to make the purchase - but it still includes the concept (described by Matt) of vendors paying for shelf space.

What's clear is that - at least at present - vertically aligned businesses are passé. A bunch of different companies get involved in the store - or in the car that picks you up and takes you somewhere.

P.S. Relevant to my day job, this part of Scoble's post caught my eye:

Each display also has a camera over it that’s studying customer behavior. Right now they’re most interested in dwell time, or how long each customer hangs out in front of specific products. They use that to understand how interesting each product is and what percentage of the time someone will transact.

I have no idea whether the technology used by B8ta is actually IDENTIFYING the individuals - or at least tracking to see if Unknown Customer A goes from Display A, pops up at Display B a couple of minutes later, and then pops up at Display C a few minutes after that.

Wednesday, February 17, 2016

Shoe'nuff - on the eighth day, God created (gift card) hell

For several weeks now, I have been struggling with a shoe vendor and a gift card vendor. I will not name either company, because similar things probably happen with other shoe and gift card vendors.

The shoe vendor is one who offers shoes in the $150-$200 range, via its own stores, its own outlet stores, third party stores, and online. I have been buying these shoes on and off for some time, and my current pair of shoes is in need of replacement.

So I decided to go to one of the shoe place's own stores - one that I had visited in the past with good results. Unfortunately, I was unable to find a shoe that I really liked, but did find one that I sort of liked. I told the salesperson my size, and mentioned that I wore a narrow width. The salesperson checked, found the shoe in a wide width, and really wanted me to try that shoe on because perhaps it might fit. I declined and left, surprised that this particular store would go to those lengths to try to make a sale, regardless of whether the product was actually best for the customer.

I subsequently visited the shoe vendor's website and found a style that I really liked (and which was less expensive than the one the salesperson tried to get me to buy). I called the store back and asked if it had that particular style. The store didn't.

There are other branches of the store, including an outlet branch, within driving distance of my home, so I called them up to see if they had my preferred style. They didn't.

Finally, on Sunday, February 7, I decided to do something that I had never done before - order shoes online. Ordinarily I wouldn't risk this, but I had been wearing these shoes for years.

So I took my gift card (a general gift card, not one that could only be used for the shoe vendor), entered my purchase information...and my purchase was declined because my shipping address didn't match the billing address for the gift card.

Did I mention that this was a gift card, so the billing address (I didn't know gift cards had billing addresses) normally WOULDN'T match the shipping address?

So I tried again, making a guess as to what the billing address should be - and then my purchase was declined because I didn't have sufficient balance on my gift card.


What happened was something that often happens with gift, credit, or debit cards - a temporary hold was placed on the card for a particular amount, awaiting resolution of the transaction.

Unfortunately, in my case there was no transaction - the first attempt was declined, and I cancelled the second attempt. Yet I had about $400 tied up on my gift card until the hold was lifted.

On Tuesday, February 9 I called the shoe vendor, and it confirmed that no transaction was posted, and no transaction would be posted. I would need to talk to the gift card vendor, but these things usually take 3 business days.

The shoe vendor was wrong.

By Friday, February 12 when the balances still hadn't cleared up, I called the gift card vendor and was told that the transactions would take eight calendar days to clear, since the vendor had up to seven calendar days to post a transaction. And there was no way to speed that process up.

If I was depending upon that gift card alone, what this meant was that the shoes that I wanted to buy on the weekend of February 8-9 probably wouldn't have been purchased until the weekend of February 20-21.

Of course, by this time I had already Googled/Binged the question "Who are the primary competitors to this particular shoe vendor?" On Saturday, February 13, I visited one of those competitors - without the gift card - and bought some shoes.

I'm not sure what this means about future shoe purchases - I have to see how the competitor's shoes hold up over the next few months - but the next time that I consider buying a gift card for someone, I'll probably get cash instead.

Monday, February 15, 2016

When communication is not only asynchronous, but also nonexistent

For the last several hundred years, there have been two basic ways for people to communicate with each other - synchronously, and asynchronously.

The specifics may have changed - for example, synchronous communication could not take place via video conference in the 1700s - but the types of communication are essentially the same. In synchronous communication, the two parties are engaged at the same time, and can immediately provide audio and/or visual feedback to each other. In asynchronous communication, one party sends the communication to the other, who responds at a later time - two seconds later, or two months later.

I am a huge fan of asynchronous communication via electronic mail. This allows me to respond on my schedule, starting with the highest priority items (my wife or my bosses) and eventually moving to the lowest priority items (you can save money on your electric bill!).

But there is a drawback to email, and to all asynchronous communication. These communications are founded upon an assumption that we are actually communicating with someone on the other end.

I know of two instances in which that was not the case.

I cannot share the details of the two instances, although there is one that I'd REALLY like to share if I could. But both boil down to the same thing. In each case, Person A sent an email to Person B at a particular company. Not receiving a response, or an out of office message, Person A sent a follow-up message to Person B. After increasing frustration, Person A finally asked other people, "Why isn't Person B responding to my emails?" In both cases, it turned out that Person B had left the company, and the person's email account was not disabled. Unfortunately for both Persons A, whoever was supposed to be monitoring the Person B account didn't do so, leading to a delay.

So people were communicating to other people who weren't there, and this fact was not known.

Of course, there are benefits to this. Have you ever wanted to send a nasty email, but then realized that it could do great damage to yourself? Well, if you ever discover one of these unattended email accounts, just send it there. President.Carly.Fiorina@whitehouse.gov is a good example of such an account.

Then again, perhaps your nasty email would be the one that WOULD be seen by someone...

Saturday, February 13, 2016

Ellison's #oow13 no-show does matter...sort of

A little over two years ago, I wrote about a tempest in a teapot that disappeared rather quickly - the temporarily shocking fact that Larry Ellison skipped his second scheduled keynote at Oracle OpenWorld to hang out by the water. The reason? America's Cup.

Initially, the sky was falling. Larry doesn't care about his customers. This will permanently destroy Oracle.

A week later, it was forgotten. As I said at the time:

And if you're being honest, you'll admit that Ellison's no-show did NOT send a signal to the entire company. I don't think there's an Oracle sales rep who is now saying, "You know, I think I'll skip that meeting with the customer and go play golf instead."

And even in terms of corporate governance, Oracle wasn't impacted by Larry's "I'm on a boat" routine. I mean, the company has TWO presidents. Talk about built-in redundancy.

But now, over two years later, the real damage is appearing - not from Ellison's no-show, but from the fact that Oracle's name is associated with boating in the first place. You see, there was a recent case in court, and Oracle's corporate name featured prominently in the case.

The case, however, did not involve Oracle Corporation. It involved Oracle Racing, dba Oracle Team USA, a completely separate entity (which at one point had significant sponsorship from BMW).

It turns out that Matthew Charles Mitchell, a member of the team, believes that Oracle Racing's failure to fire Simeon Tienpoint for applying resin to the boat (which increased its weight) caused the America's Cup jury to unfairly target Mitchell. Or, as Mitchell's counsel argued:

Mitchell claimed "that the team's failure to suspend or fire Tienpont caused Mitchell to become a scapegoat in disciplinary proceedings before the America's Cup jury," (Judge) Chhabria wrote in his summary of the case. "In other words, Mitchell seems to believe that if the Oracle Team had suspended or fired Tienpont, the America's Cup jury would somehow have treated Mitchell differently during disciplinary proceedings. But according to the allegations in Mitchell's own complaint, as well as the exhibits he attaches to the complaint, the America's Cup jury was aware that Tienpont added resin to the kingpost. Therefore, the Oracle Team's alleged failure to suspend or fire Tienpont could not have caused Mitchell's alleged injury."

As it turns out, Judge Chhabria tossed the case out. But not before the name "Oracle" appeared in various publications, and creative headline writers got to write things such as "America's Cup Sailor's Suit Tossed Overboard."

And it's just as well the suit was tossed overboard. If Oracle Racing follows the color scheme of Oracle Corporation, those red sailor suits were probably painful to the eyes.

Friday, February 12, 2016

YIMBY in South Carolina Revisited, Now as a Budget Battle (and a Primary Battle?)

Nearly two years ago, I wrote a post that included the following text:

The U.S. Department of Energy is operating a nuclear facility near Aiken, South Carolina. The purpose of the facility is to turn weapons-grade plutonium into commercial nuclear reactor fuel. Obviously, such a facility requires plutonium, which means that there's a whole bunch of that deadly material floating around South Carolina....

Understandably, there are two sides in this battle. One side asserts that a plutonium conversion facility is extremely dangerous and costly. The other side asserts that the plutonium conversion facility is necessary to implement international agreements, and that it would be un-Constitutional to shut the facility down.

Oh, by the way, it's the STATE that wants to keep the facility open, and the FEDS who want to shut it down.

Fast forward to this week, when the Democratic President went through the exercise of submitting a budget for 2017 - a budget that will pretty much be ignored because Republicans run the House and Senate. But for what it's worth, the President's budget includes a change for a particular South Carolina facility:

On Tuesday, President Obama proposed a 2017 budget that called for terminating the project and called for a "change in plutonium disposition" that would appropriate $285 million for the Energy Department to complete a "preconceptual design" for downblending the radioactive material.

The change means that instead of turning the material into the nuclear fuel, the Savannah River Site would be tasked only with diluting the plutonium and then shipping it to the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant in Carlsbad, New Mexico.

Several people are not happy with this proposal, including the South Carolina Attorney General ("the federal government must be required to 'obey the law' and finish the MOX facility"), U.S. Senator Lindsey Graham ("reckless, ill-conceived and dangerous"), and U.S. Representative Joe Wilson ("counterproductive and shortsighted").

And all of this controversy comes at a critical time - not for President Obama, but for his successor. Because right now Donald Trump, Hillary Clinton, Bernie Sanders, and a host of other candidates are all headed to South Carolina, trying to convince the citizens that they would make a great President.

Take the case of Clinton, who was a former member of Obama's administration. Or take the case of Jeb Bush - the project was launched while his brother was President. Or take the case of Trump - who if he were to build a nuclear disposal facility, it would be the absolute best facility ever, and would be named Trump. Of course, even if a Trump facility released tons of nuclear waste and killed the fine citizens of South Carolina, he wouldn't lose voters.

So we'll see if this becomes an issue with the Presidential candidates in the next few weeks. Incidentally, South Carolina will be a bit of fun, because the Republican and Democratic primaries are a week apart.

Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Is a university a business? Mount St. Mary's efforts to keep its doors open may backfire

The phrase "ivory tower" has a particular connotation when applied to a university, or to some other type of academic research organization. It implies a loftiness of purpose, an unfettered pursuit of knowledge. In this idealistic phase, a true university - and I'm not talking about the money-grubbing greedy people who run the University of Phoenix - is dedicated to the pursuit of truth. Words such as "censorship" are incompatible with this lofty purpose.

Of course, some on the political right argue that universities censor those who love Murica. But I digress.

However, when you look at a university objectively, there are fetters. A university needs money to run. If you have ever graduated from a university, or even attended a university for a short time, you are probably subjected to repeated requests for donations, offers to help with estate planning (with the estate going to the university, of course), and many other reminders that the chief duty of a university president is not to consider the lofty goals of higher education, but to make sure that the university has enough money to keep its doors open.

So if a university is a business, doesn't it make sense to get a businessman to run a university?

Mr. Newman has almost 30 years of experience working as an executive with a strong background in private equity, strategy consulting, and operations. He is the former managing director of the private equity fund JP Capital Partners, as well as president and CEO of Cornerstone Management Group, founded in 1997.

During his career he has started or co-founded four different businesses, completed more than $33 billion in transactions, and raised more than $3 billion in equity funding for ventures and bids he originated. He has led several business turnarounds and delivered more than $200 million in profit improvements.

Mr. Newman is Simon Newman, who was brought in to become the president of Mount St. Mary's University in Maryland - presumably to make sure that the doors remained open.

What could go wrong?

First off, you have to remember that universities are constantly rated - not only by U.S. News and World Report (which, ironically, was only the fourth best weekly newsmagazine), but by the U.S. Department of Education. Ratings mean money, so universities - whether they like it or not - have to pay attention to things such as retention rates. President Newman had an idea about this:

Is a valid strategy to improve a college's retention rate to encourage students at risk of dropping out to do so in the first few weeks, so they won't be counted in the total numbers reported to the U.S. Education Department and others?...

The president, Simon Newman, acknowledged to The Washington Post that he was pushing a plan to intervene early on with students who may be having difficulties. But he said that this was to help them, although he said that the help in some cases might be for them to see that they might be better off a less expensive public institution.

Unfortunately for President Newman, he chose some rather forceful words to impress on the faculty that they needed to take a businesslike approach to this:

The student newspaper also reported (and The Washington Post quoted a professor confirming) that Newman told some faculty members they needed to change the way they think of struggling students. He reportedly said, “This is hard for you because you think of the students as cuddly bunnies, but you can’t. You just have to drown the bunnies … put a Glock to their heads.”

In this process, Newman was not only opposed by the student newspaper, but also by a number of faculty members who disagreed with the idea.

In a university environment, this often means that the institution goes through a few semesters of soul-searching, debate, discussion, and the like. At a minimum, any decisions are reached in a joint effort by faculty and administration, in accordance with the concept of shared governance.

But that isn't what happens in a business (with a few notable exceptions). And Newman, with his business background, acted quickly:

The president of Mount St. Mary's University in Maryland on Monday fired two faculty members without any faculty review of his action or advance notice. One was a tenured professor who had recently criticized some of the president's policies. The other was the adviser to the student newspaper....

But wait...it gets better.

Newman's letter firing the tenured professor -- Thane M. Naberhaus of the philosophy department -- accused him of disloyalty.

"As an employee of Mount St. Mary's University, you owe a duty of loyalty to this university and to act in a manner consistent with that duty. However, your recent actions, in my opinion and that of others, have violated that duty and clearly justify your termination," said the letter.

Further, the letter said that Naberhaus's actions "have caused considerable damage" to the university and that the university might sue him. In addition, the letter told Naberhaus he was "designated persona non grata" and banned from the campus.

Now this is not completely unusual. Even colleges that are most dedicated to academic freedom sometimes demand loyalty from their faculty; my own alma mater, Reed College, famously dismissed Professor Stanley Moore during the McCarthy era.

But it certainly raises eyebrows.

How will this issue be resolved? Will dedicated faculty throughout the globe unite in an effort to champion academic freedom?

Perhaps...but it would have no effect.

The one way that Mount St. Mary's issues will be resolved will be by a method that President Newman clearly understands: money. If critical donors decide that the environment at Mount St. Mary's is so toxic that donations dry up, rest assured that President Newman will be asked to seek other employment.

In a businesslike manner.