Saturday, May 27, 2017

When shiny new objects get old - Odiowent

It started with so much promise.


Odiogo announced today the launch of the 'Listen Button' (, a web 2.0 service which allows Content Publishers to provide visitors with an easy and instant way to hear regular text articles. Located near the familiar 'Email' and 'Print' buttons on top of each article in mainstream media and blogs, the Listen Button when clicked will open a player which will read aloud the currently displayed article.

"With the PC entering the living room as the brain of the home multimedia center, text content providers need tools which seamlessly turn readers into listeners," said Marc Kawam, CEO of "Our Podcast solutions and the Listen Button empower content providers to mobilize and boost the value of their text content by making it instantly audible."

So as Odiogo rolled out, the tech press started writing about this shiny new toy. Mashable did. CNET did. DailyTech did. Politico added a Listen button.

In 2008, I signed up with Odiogo, and incorporated it into my blogs. The audio files were not only available at my blog posts themselves, but (via a podcast link) could be subscribed to, so that you would never have to even go to my blog. As I said at the time:

I'm not sure if this really has a practical use yet, but the service is available for those who want to truthfully say, "I don't read Empoprise-IE."

And I used it for years, until 2013, when I received this letter:

August 12, 2013

Important change to the Odiogo service

Dear Odiogo User,

We would like to share with you important information and changes we are making to the Odiogo Service.

When we started the company a few years ago, we were under the belief that our vocalization service would be paid for via embedded pre-roll ads. Unfortunately this did not prove to be the case. The many of brands and agencies we reached out to were skeptical about audio advertising on the web and preferred staying with the traditional banners and web formatted film ads for the videos.

This situation is driving us to shift to a different model which will help us sustain in the market and provide high standards of product and support. Starting September 1, 2013 the Odiogo Service will be made free only to personal, non-profit blogs. All other blogs or sites using Odiogo will have to switch to either the "Plus" or "Pro" plan....

While I could have remained with the service, I chose to interpret their terms to conclude that I was excluded.

And then I forgot about Odiogo until this morning, when I was playing mp3s on my computer and ran across an Odiogo file that I had saved - the reading of this post. A computer voice reading Spice Girls - what can beat it?

This got me curious - how was Odiogo's new business plan going?

Not all that well, according to The Hot Iron in a 2015 post.

A few weeks back, when I was integrating the new responsive design for this blog and was testing all links and functionality that I found the link to Odiogo did not resolve to anything, as if its servers were down. As I thought it may be a temporary issue I left all links in place. Now several weeks later, when I go to the Odiogo site, the resulting Web page is from domain registrar GoDaddy indicating the domain is available for sale at auction! Clearly somebody did not renew the domain name and the site and service is down.

I kept on search for information, but all I found were other user comments like this one:

Update: As of February 2015, it looks like Odiogo is dead. Broken link to above removed.

Everyone was writing about Odiogo when it started, but hardly anyone mentioned it at its passing.

Thursday, May 11, 2017

The reality of Sears?

Last Friday, I shared two posts - one that talked about cost containment, and another that talked about employee views about their employers.

Let's revisit both of those, because one of the employers discussed was Sears, and Sears is somewhat involved in cost containment. Although, according to Sears CEO Edward Lampert, cost containment isn't the overriding priority at the company.

Six shareholders questioned Lampert. One, who said he had sold men's clothing at a Sears store many years ago, asked if Lampert was in denial about the company's losses.

Lampert said his reluctance to close more stores was not about denial, but about caring.

"I'll fight like hell" to fix stores, he said, adding: "We don't want to destroy value, we want to create value."

So, how is Sears creating value?

He predicted people will look back and wonder how they missed the Sears' turnaround, which he said would be driven by the Shop Your Way loyalty program.

Last year Sears teamed up with ride-services company Uber Technologies to give members loyalty points for trips. Lampert said he was trying to strike more such partnerships to boost overall sales.

So Sears is instituting a loyalty program AND partnering with Uber. Stop the presses! Perhaps Shop Your Way has outstanding features that no other loyalty program has - perhaps not. And while an Uber partnership might have seemed really cool a few years ago, the continued bad press at Uber (DISCLOSURE: I WORK FOR A COMPANY THAT PROVIDES SOFTWARE FOR FINGERPRINT CHECKS) makes that seem like less of a coup these days.

But these points are not the primary points that Lampert wants to make. According to the Reuters article that I've been quoting, Lampert feels that the press has been picking on Sears.

Sears Holdings Corp (SHLD.O) Chief Executive Officer Edward Lampert blasted the media on Wednesday for "unfairly singling out" the company over the past decade and blamed "irresponsible" coverage for the retailer's woes.

Yup, the media has been irresponsibly singling out Sears over the last several years. I was easily able to confirm this, by finding this Guardian article that talked all about Sears. Oh, and I guess Macy's was also mentioned. Oh, and JC Penney was mentioned too. And yeah, there were a few paragraphs on Urban Outfitters. And mentions of The Limited, BCBG Max Azria, Guess, American Apparel, and Abercrombie & Fitch. And the rent is (too damn) high. Yeah, the media is really picking on Sears, aren't they?

And once you anger the media, don't be surprised if the media says unflattering things about you. This lesson doesn't only apply to Sears, but there are enough things in the Reuters article that might have not been as prominent if Sears was nicer to those that cover it. A few examples:

Sears, once the largest U.S. retailer, warned investors in March there was a chance it may not be able to continue as a going concern after years of losses and declining sales.

Lampert, a hedge fund investor who is rarely seen in public, kicked off his appearance at an annual shareholders' meeting at Sears' headquarters in Hoffman Estates with a slideshow of headlines about the company's financial distress, dating back to 2008....

The company has not reported a profit for six years, which Lampert compared to Inc's (AMZN.O) early unprofitable growth....

That was a good one. Because when you think Sears, you think Amazon. Let's continue.

The bulk of Lampert's 90-minute appearance focused on news coverage, which he said had been "deliberately unfair."

Media coverage was "meant to scare our vendors" who then tried to negotiate better terms with the company....

Five journalists in attendance were not allowed to speak with Lampert or ask questions.

Perhaps Lampert should have scheduled private meetings with those five journalists beforehand. But (for the most psrt) he didn't.

I'll grant that I only have two data points on Lampert (here's the other), but it appears that Lampert doesn't have media savvy. Even when he did grant an exclusive interview to the Chicago Tribune (in advance of the shareholders' meeting), he didn't choose his phrases carefully.

I could argue that this transition phase is taking a lot longer than it should and that may be a fair argument. If we were making a meaningful amount of money it would enable us to move much faster in our transformation. But we've made a lot of decisions we would rather not so we can make those pension payments, so we can make vendors more comfortable when they're questioning, 'Are you going to be able to pay or not pay,' and why are they questioning it? Because there are a lot of articles that are speculating, and there are elements of truth, but they're certainly designed to scare people....

We're fighting like hell to change the way people do business with us. And my view is, we're the customer. If you're a vendor, and want to do business with us, then you have to treat us like a customer, you don't treat us like a pariah.

Luckily this was a Chicago Tribune article and not a New York Daily News article. Building upon the past, the headline might have been "Sears to Pensioners and Vendors: Drop Dead."

Tuesday, May 9, 2017

Jill Donovan and Jon Schmitz were embarrassed on national TV - Donovan (eventually) recovered, Schmitz didn't

I saw a story on Forbes last week, and I thought I'd dig into the details.

Today Jill Donovan is the Chief Executive Officer of Rustic Cuff, but back in 2004 she was a practicing lawyer, with a lot of hobbies, and with one overwhelming desire - to get onto the Oprah Winfrey show. From Donovan's perspective, the whole thing sounded like a fun time.

But Donovan didn't realize how TV works. TV's idea of fun might not be the same as a potential guest's idea of fun.

Donovan didn't realize this when she discovered a sure-fire way to realize her dream of being on Oprah.

One day, while working on a divorce case, Donovan’s mind began to wander, and she checked Winfrey’s website, where the producers were looking for people who re-gifted. Donovan happened to have a closet at home filled with slippers, purses, hats and bracelets — years’ worth of stuff from birthdays, holidays and anniversaries, all ready to be re-wrapped. In a habit she got from her mother, she had been a self-described “chronic re-gifter” since childhood.

“It’s perfect,” Donovan thought. “That’s my backdoor.”

So she contacted Oprah's show, and her story must have impressed the producers, because she was invited to be on the air. And I'm sure that Oprah's people were really really nice to her. The day came, and she was in the studio, chatting with Oprah, and things were going great.

Then Oprah said something that would change the next several years of Jill Donovan's life.

“Let’s ask the etiquette experts.”

All of a sudden, Oprah and Jill were joined by several other people who expressed their views on Donovan's regifting practice. Here's the way that Oprah described what happened next.

What the Experts Say

Kim Izzo, etiquette columnist: Well I hate to say it, but, yes, it is rude. It seems like a twisted form of recycling. You can absolutely pass it on, but be open about it. Do it in the moment. Don't reroute it! I would just never pretend that I bought something.

After that, another expert chimed in, saying that the practice was not only rude, but also tacky.

The producers got their wish, and ended up with a compelling show that people would talk about. And to be fair, Oprah isn't the only one who does this - there are a ton of shows that are really, really nice to potential guests until they surprise them on the air. But after the taping was done, Jill Donovan left Oprah's studio and went home, embarrassed in front of a national audience. I have never been embarrassed in front of a national audience, but I doubt it is a fun experience.

It certainly wasn't for Jill Donovan.

Four or five years went by, and Donovan didn’t quite seem like the same person. She didn’t smile as often. Didn’t crack as many jokes. The old gift closet sat empty, everything thrown away or given to charity after she got back from taping the show in Chicago.

And somehow, deep inside Donovan, there was a place that felt as empty and bare as those shelves — a place that believed what the experts had said about her. She was rude and tacky and ashamed.

“I went into hiding creatively,” Donovan says.

As it turned out, JIll Donovan snapped out of it, and today is a successful entrepreneur. And Oprah Winfrey herself has been photographed wearing Jill Donovan's Rustic Cuffs.

Scott Amedure wasn't so lucky.

Scott Amedure wasn't a guest on the Oprah Winfrey show - he was a guest on the Jenny Jones show. He was obsessed with daytime talk shows, and agreed with Jenny Jones' producers to appear on a "secret crush" show, in which he would confess his love for his secret crush.

That's when Jenny Jones' producers contacted Jon Schmitz.

A gregarious waiter at the Fox and Hounds restaurant in the tony Detroit suburb of Bloomfield Hills, Schmitz, 24, had been told by producers that he had a secret admirer who would step forward on the syndicated Jenny Jones Show. Although he had balked the first time a Jones staffer had called, coworkers persuaded Schmitz to take a chance: Last fall he had split with his fiancée (a woman whose name has been withheld by his family), and he was eager to start a new relationship. Before leaving for Chicago, he spent $300 on new clothes in hopes of impressing his admirer.

Again, I'm sure that Jenny Jones' producers had been very nice to Schmitz as he prepared to meet the woman of his dreams. But Schmitz wasn't prepared for the fact that his secret admirer turned out to be a man.

No, Schmitz was not prepared for this at all.

Three days later, Jon Schmitz murdered Scott Amedure.

Amedure was dead, Schmitz ended up in prison (and could be released some time between August 2017 and December 2037), and Jenny Jones wasn't smiling when she had to testify in court.

So that's the story with televison - you never know what the producers are planning.

If you'd like to read a behind the scenes account of these shows, read this piece from someone who once lived in Chicago and attended both Jenny Jones AND Oprah Winfrey tapings.

Monday, May 8, 2017

Time Zone!

As I previously noted, I was recently working on a marketing project that required cooperation with several people within my company.

Now I'll say what the project was - it was a social media campaign related to a recent trade show. I was part of the team that was executing the campaign, which not only included mentions on my company's official social media channels, but also reshares of this content by others, including myself.

So because of my participation in the campaign, I was well aware that an official post would appear on Twitter at 10:00 am Eastern time, referencing an event that would take place at 11:25 am Eastern time.

At the time that this tweet would appear, I would not be in the Eastern time zone. I would be in the Pacific time zone. But I still wanted to retweet the item.

So a few minutes after 7 Pacific time, I had my mobile phone out, Twitter app open. I found the tweet in question and reshared it, along with a comment encouraging people to attend the event in fifteen minutes.

A couple of minutes later, my phone buzzed with an email on my corporate email account. It was from an employee in the Eastern time zone, who gently conveyed the following message to me:

Good morning, John. Heads up re: your recent tweet: – it’s 10:14 in the East, not 11:14.

So I deleted the tweet and replaced it with a corrected one.

The affair irked me because I usually pride myself at my mastery of time zone differences - not only between the opposite ends of my own country, but between my workplace and the parent company headquarters in France. Granted there are a few weeks in spring and fall when that California-to-France calculation fails, but for the most part I can keep my 9-hour time difference straight, and my 3-hour time difference. Obviously I failed in that instance.

But that isn't the important part of this post. The important part is that I get to steal thunder from one of my other blogs and post the video of this song.

Friday, May 5, 2017

The "pre-existing condition" of maximizing short-term shareholder value

Now that the House of Representatives has passed a healthcare bill and forwarded it to the U.S. Senate, there is a lot of talk about the effect of pre-existing conditions on future individual health care costs.

Why? Because of the MacArthur Amendment which, with some tweaking, was retained in the final bill. Here's a summary:

Rep. Tom MacArthur, R-New Jersey, wrote the new language on pre-existing conditions in the current iteration of the GOP health care bill as part of his eponymous amendment to the current legislation. A legislative summary declares, "Nothing in this Act shall be construed as permitting health insurance issuers to limit access to health coverage for individuals with preexisting conditions."...

Under the new Republican bill, states have the ability to apply for three different waivers from regulations under Obamacare if they can prove that doing so will reduce average premiums, increase enrollment, stabilize the health insurance coverage market or increase the choice of health plans in the state. One of those waivers applies to pre-existing conditions, allowing insurers to use "health status" -- that is, current health, health history and other risk factors -- to set insurance premiums.

While the MacArthur Amendment expressly forbids insurers from turning down people with pre-existing conditions, they could, based on your health status, "offer you a policy that could end up charging you thousands," said Karen Pollitz, Senior Fellow with the Kaiser Family Foundation.

So how many people could have their insurance rates jacked up due to pre-existing conditions? Well, last year the Kaiser Family Foundation addressed that:

Before private insurance market rules in the Affordable Care Act (ACA) took effect in 2014, health insurance sold in the individual market in most states was medically underwritten. That means insurers evaluated the health status, health history, and other risk factors of applicants to determine whether and under what terms to issue coverage....

We estimate that 27% of adult Americans under the age of 65 have health conditions that would likely leave them uninsurable if they applied for individual market coverage under pre-ACA underwriting practices that existed in nearly all states. While a large share of this group has coverage through an employer or public coverage where they do not face medical underwriting, these estimates quantify how many people could be ineligible for individual market insurance under pre-ACA practices if they were to ever lose this coverage....

At any given time, the vast majority of these approximately 52 million people with declinable pre-existing conditions have coverage through an employer or through public programs like Medicaid.

So some people are drawing the conclusion that 52 million Americans will have their insurance rates jacked up.

I call bull.

First off, to assume that 52 million people will have their insurance rates jacked up, you have to make two underlying assumptions. First, you have to assume that the insurance companies will decide to jack up rates for every pre-existing condition on this list. Second, you have to assume that every single state will ask for the waivers allowed in the MacArthur Amendment.

This is, on its face, ludicrous. I live in California, and I can state with certainty that the Democratic legislature in California will never allow pregnancy to be treated as a pre-existing condition. And I doubt that any insurance company who does business in California would even think of approaching customers (individuals or corporations) and saying, "If you want to cover newly-hired pregnant employees, that costs extra."

So while it's quite possible that while some states may grant these waivers, not all states will. The populous blue states on the coasts won't go along with this - therefore, while insurance rates could be jacked up for some, they won't necessarily be jacked up for 52 million people. That 52 million figure could be a gross OVERESTIMATE of the number of people affected.

Or is it? Because there's a second factor at work here - another set of "pre-existing conditions." Not pre-existing health conditions, but pre-existing conditions regarding the way that business works.

As I noted earlier today, shareholders and investors are fickle folk. When American Airlines tried to retain talented people by jacking up wages, investors such as Kevin Crissey wailed like hurt children.

If you think that corporations are primarily interested in providing great products and services, you're ignoring what's going on in the corporate world, which is so heavily focused on short-term gains (at least in this country).

The primary goal of corporations is - COST CONTAINMENT. This explains all of the rightsizing and other steps that corporations are taking. It's all an effort to increase short-term gains to make the investors happy.

And, if the House bill were to survive basically intact in the Senate and obtain the President's signature, short-term investors would have a great tool to drive cost containment.

And in closing, I want to assure our shareholders that Megacorp will continue to expand. We will do so due to the talents of our dedicated employees. Now I'll take questions from the floor. Carl?




Carl, I can assure you that we don't have lavish spending habits. Heck, I flew United Economy to get to this meeting. We're not lavish here.


Um...yes, I've confirmed that we are covering those.


All employees are charged the same rate regardless of these factors.


(torches are lit)

So if the short-term shareholders have their way and force companies to "rightsize" their healthcare costs, the 52 million people figure may end up being an UNDERESTIMATE.

What? Employees are supposed to LIKE their company?

I've commented on this story, but wasn't moved to post something about it until now.

The story ISN'T about how American Airlines decided last week to offer higher wages to its workers roughly two years in advance of scheduled contract negotiations.

The story IS about how Wall Street reacted:

“This is frustrating. Labor is being paid first again. Shareholders get leftovers,” Citi analyst Kevin Crissey wrote in a note to clients.

And Crissey wasn't the only investor who was disturbed. American stock fell after the announcement.

I'd like to share two relevant items. The first is something that I originally shared in January - a debate about whether companies should strive to satisfy customers, or should strive to satisfy employees. (No, Mr. Crissey, putting shareholders first didn't enter into this particular conversation.) Let's return to what Richard Branson said on the topic:

"It should go without saying, if the person who works at your company is 100 percent proud of the brand and you give them the tools to do a good job and they are treated well, they're going to be happy."

Well, I recently ran across another article that made a similar point. This particular story resonated with me because of what I've been doing over the last week for my day job. I may say more about this at another time, but for now I'll just say that I was involved in a marketing effort that required cooperation from my coworkers - not just in marketing, but in other departments within the company. And I got that cooperation, which paid dividends.

Back to the article that I found. It is entitled "3 Reasons Why Your Employee’s Personal Brands Are Your Biggest Untapped Resource." Now I'm not going to discuss all three reasons - check the original article for that - but I'd like to mention the first one - word of mouth. Let me quote a bit:

According to the 2016 Edelman Trust Barometer, employees are the most trusted source of information when it comes to how companies treat both their staff and their customers. If employees are excited about the work they’re doing and align with your office culture, they can be your biggest advocates.

And the reverse also applies - if employees aren't excited, they're not going to advocate for you at all, regardless of what you do. This is something that American Airlines CEO Doug Parker noted last year.

American is spending $3 billion on customer service improvements and buying hundreds of new planes to replace its aging fleet. But Parker said the investments will be meaningless if employees aren’t proud of the airline.

“If we don’t have our employees engaged and excited about being at American Airlines, it’s all for waste,” Parker said.

Time well tell whether Parker's pay raise move last week will affect American Airlines' culture. Just about all of the major airlines, including American, have made the news over the last few weeks because of poor customer service issues. But let's look outside the airline industry. Here's an example:

Bank of America has the worst customer satisfaction score of any bank in the ACSI. In a 24/7 Wall St.’s annual customer satisfaction poll, about 44% of those surveyed said they had a negative experience with both BofA’s banking and credit card operations, among the worst of any company surveyed. In addition to unhappy customers, the company has also has dissatisfied employees. The bank agreed to pay to settle a racial discrimination case involving 700 employees in August 2013 as well as a gender discrimination suit the following month.

"Uh, John," you may be saying, "people probably hate banks more than they hate airlines. Well, unless you're Dr. David Dao." OK, let's look at retail. While retail is certainly impacted by new competitors such as Walmart and Amazon, retail usually isn't passionately hated. Unless you're Sears.

Sears department stores are disliked by both customers and employees. Sears has nearly the lowest customer satisfaction rating of any department store reviewed in the ACSI. Additionally, Sears employees give the company far lower than average marks on workplace review site Glassdoor, and fewer than one in three Sears employees would recommend a job with the company to a friend. Multiple reviews cite low wages and unprofessional upper management as major drawbacks of working at the company.

Think about that one in three statistic. If you're company isn't recruiting the best and brightest, it's recruiting the worst and dumbest. And how do you think THAT will affect profitability, Mr. Crissey?

I can also cite anecdotal evidence. I've written about Sears in the past, and I don't think I've ever found anything good to say about the company. Not surprising, since the people who actually work at Sears apparently don't have good things to say either.

Even some people in the investment community realize that Sears has a toxic culture and isn't a good place to work.

So why are some on Wall Street angered over American Airlines' moves to spend money on happy employees?

I guess everyone on Wall Street flies Spirit Airlines. Or WestJet's newly-announced budget offshoot.

Monday, May 1, 2017

Two transgender goats walk into a Luna bar

It's May Day, but rather than talking about Samuel Gompers or Finnish sailor hats or whatever, I'm going to talk about other stuff.

You see, I recently hopped into a Sprouts grocery store on my way to work one morning. Because I am a bigly health nut (because I said so), I needed to get stuff from Sprouts that was bigly healthy. After finding some carbonated water and some unsalted cashews, I figured that I'd go whole (soy) hog (substitute) and get a chocolate protein bar, because nothing screams health like a chocolate protein bar.

Because this was Sprouts, and Sprouts caters to bigly health nuts like me, the store had a whole row of protein and other bars. Heck, they probably have every bar imaginable. The gluten free ones. The ones with fiber derived from pine trees grown in wild boar fertilizer. The ones made by Pakistani women who don't cover their heads and who only use environmentally friendly open source smartphones. The ones with milk from transgender goats. It's all bewildering.

So I just grabbed a brand I recognized - a Luna bar.

I did this knowing full well that I would probably earn the condemnation of bigly health nuts who are biglier on health than I am.

And sure enough, the Organic Authority (because he/she said so) has condemned these bars for a variety of reasons. Among them:

One of the most common ingredients in energy bars is isolated protein. Whether soy or whey, protein isolates are often extracted with chemical solvents like hexane—a polluting toxin linked to cancer. Soy, often genetically modified, contributes to the destruction of the Amazon rainforest and can have negative effects on hormone levels. Many conventional whey proteins have been found to contain heavy metals and toxins resulting from antibiotics, hormones and other drugs routinely fed to dairy cows.

And in addition to all the toxins (note: when a bigly health authority starts yammering about toxins, my B.S. antenna immediately goes up), the Organic Authority does note that these bars are often filled with sugar. Did my Luna Mint Chocolate Chip bar have any sugar? Oh, just 14 grams of it.

(Incidentally, I had to search the web for that nutritional information. It's not printed on the individual bars.)

But basically, it's a triumph of marketing, as CLIF Bar & Company (yes, CLIF and Luna come from the same company), aligns its marketing messages to the aspirational goals of their potential customers.

And that protein bar is probably better than a bag of fries.