Author of "This Is Rage" and "Endless Encores"

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8 Warning Worries That Your Company is Toast

By on Mar 7, 2019 in Blog | 0 comments

Last month I reminded you that no big-brand company lasts forever, and few of today’s technology phenoms last long at all. One of my readers emailed to ask if I might dare to note some of the warning signs that suggest company extinction might be zeroing in on your own workplace. Of course if I knew the full answer to that, I would spend the rest of my career shorting all those imminent losers traded in the public markets. Creative destruction is difficult to see in its earliest phases because it often begins simmering silently in the background when your company is riding a wave of enormous good fortune. Funny how that infecting vulnerability sneaks its nose under the tent precisely when a business seems to be at its healthiest peak. While the corrosion can be deceptively invisible at first, there are usually festering symptoms we can observe, watching the makings of a crash in slow motion long before opposing forces collide. Here are eight thumbnail questions to help diagnose the severity of your company’s illness and whether it’s likely to be terminal. What is the company’s R&D budget as a percentage of sales? If research-and-development spending is declining as your company matures, it’s possible that company is being harvested by its owners as a cash cow. While strong cash flow is an indicator of company health, take notice of how much of your business is being driven by recent successes vs. legacy brands. If new products aren’t breaking, sniff around and see how much of that cash is being invested in next-generation ideas. If increasingly more cash is going to ownership and less to building your company’s future, you may have reason to worry. Is your CEO surrounded by people who hold the same views of the company’s excellence? Without gadflies who question everything, you’re likely to keep doing the same things. That could make you a cash cow, a one-hit wonder, or any number of limited-thinking results. Great senior leadership in a company encourages constructive conflict, because no single viewpoint in management can possibly see around every corner or predict a competitive threat. If lots of ideas are flowing, you have a much better chance to reinvent...

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Gone So Soon

By on Feb 13, 2019 in Blog | 0 comments

Recently I gave an interview about one of my favorite career projects, Carmen Sandiego. It was being researched by an archivist! I hadn’t been asked in years about the mysterious thief in the red trench coat and fedora. As big as she was in my life and on the national stage, save for a new motion picture in development, few people remember dear Carmen as much more than nostalgia. For that matter, who remembers the massive multimedia magic of CD-ROM computer games with all of 700mb of storage? There she is. There she isn’t. Nothing lasts forever. Very little lasts long at all. That is the stuff of our culture. That is the stuff of our careers. Hold on too tightly to anything and you find yourself grasping ancient pixel dust. Creative destruction is increasingly real and accelerating faster than ever. A new company comes, an old company goes. Brands emerge and evaporate before our eyes. In the start-up world, the notion of permanence is almost impossible to envision. Look forward with alacrity or don’t bother looking up from abandonment. Contemporary taste is fickle. Technology trends are more fickle. Customer loyalty is most fickle. Earlier this year I watched the National Geographic Channel limited series Valley of the Boom. I couldn’t tell if it was a dark walk down memory lane or an idealist’s time capsule of lost promise. Netscape—the big bang of the internet age—went from conception to extinction in all of about four years. The Globe—the biggest IPO of its time—was practically eviscerated at birth. Pixelon—a scam extraordinaire foiled by its own iBash—today doesn’t even make a decent trivia question on a game show. Those were just three emblematic stories, real-world cautionary tales of boom and bust. You might remember the history of other exploded rockets, from Pets.com to Webvan. Maybe you don’t want to remember. Of the big consumer-facing internet companies that emerged from dotcom v1.0, it seems Amazon, Priceline, and eBay are the only lauded brands continuing to operate at large scale. Google emerged in the second wave of the internet, capitalizing on all the failed portals’ inability to understand the essential nature of search, most notably the excruciating death spiral of Yahoo. Can you think of...

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Saving Our Language in the New Year

By on Jan 1, 2019 in Blog | 0 comments

New Year’s Resolution #1:  Stop beginning any spoken sentence with Candidly, Honestly, Quite Frankly, Truthfully, or To Tell You The Truth. Stagnant qualifiers pollute our language. If these preambles aren’t implicit, don’t speak. I posted that mandate to myself on Facebook and Twitter in the final week of 2018. As much as I try to be vigilant about avoiding these sorts of speech patterns, I have fallen prey on too many occasions of late in allowing these bogus exclamations to slip into my vocabulary. Without making any excuses, I will say it’s only natural to begin parroting the vernacular of the day. Over the past two years our airwaves have been filled unnaturally with overuse of such useless and cynical interjections. I don’t need to remind you of the bellowing source. You hear it as much as I do. You are inevitably aware of its repetitious origin. When bombastic authority misfires repeatedly, it becomes human nature to echo the poor refrain. Curiously, my warning to myself was not only met with endorsement and cheer, but with further suggestions to all who share a love of our language. It seems that banal misuses and abuses of our language only begin with my singular new year’s resolution. I guess there are many of us who would like to speak more eloquently or less sloppily as we advance together in history. Below I excerpt some of the comments shared on social media in response to my resolution, without specific name attribution to protect the privacy of the wise circle offering recommendations. Perhaps some of these will ring true as this post circulates and the collection will pick up further steam and participation. I believe as long as we are working against social devolution, there is hope yet our beloved language can endure erosion and deterioration that might otherwise undermine substance and meaning. Here are some of those shared comments and suggestions: Add to the list: “So…” I hate when people start a sentence that way. Beginning a statement with “honestly” also conveys that it’s different from your other statements — which must be lies. I’d add “believe me” as a sentential ending. When I was a young lawyer — many, many years...

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But We’ve Always…

By on Dec 3, 2018 in Blog | 0 comments

It’s December. For those of us who make our living in any form of consumer business, that usually means two things: We have made it through Black Friday and Cyber Monday, with our projections now being evaluated against actuals. In less than a month it will be a new year, where we can either make the same mistakes again or invent new ones. That leads to two takeaways I would like you to consider before the year ends: Customer behavior tells us almost everything we need to know to be successful in business, particularly when we study data and benchmark assumptions against metrics. We ignore the realities of customer behavior at our own peril, but darn it all if we don’t come up with really good reasons to flagrantly repeat our mistakes with passion and conviction. How does our eye come off the ball precisely when it is crossing the plate and our bat is in swinging position? It all begins with three wretched words: BUT WE’VE ALWAYS. Perhaps you’ve heard a few of these pronouncements before: I know our customers complain when we send them too many emails, but we’ve always sent them at least four offers on Thanksgiving Day. I know our customers don’t trust our pricing, but we’ve always jacked up our regular prices in the weeks before Christmas so we can mark them “50% off.” I know it’s irrational to cover the cost of free expedited shipping and lose money on every sale, but we’ve always managed to convince our boss that losing money is the only way we can compete with Amazon. I know our brand promise is what matters most to our company, but we’ve always managed to slip in a few low-quality products with our best inventory to even out our margins. I know we believe our customers are loyal and have a lifetime value, but we’ve always cut our customer service costs to force our bottom line into compliance with our budget. Yep, we know what we are doing is wrong, but we’ve always found a way to justify our shortcomings, weak logic, or poor decision-making because we’re out of time, out of patience, or out of energy to argue for...

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More Fallout from the Zuckerberg Files

By on Nov 12, 2018 in Blog | 0 comments

Should the unintended consequences that emerge in the course of a company’s evolution be a primary concern of management? Is the exponential creation of shareholder value still the overriding force when a wildly successful company grows even faster than its own outsized vision? Are the naive philosophical aspirations of under-experienced entrepreneurs a get-out-of-jail-free card from the ramifications of otherwise noble intentions? In answering these and similar questions, is Facebook somehow a different animal? These are some of the issues examined by a new Frontline documentary recently aired on PBS that frames a deeply damning critique of Facebook and its leadership team. While purposefully steering past the warm-and-fuzzy aspects of Facebook’s innocent exchanges of family photos and recipes, The Facebook Dilemma dives into Facebook’s structural roots. The critique presented is strident but not unfair: Why didn’t Facebook as an enterprise heed the many early warnings of the pervasiveness of its influence and more strongly consider mitigation strategies, and now that the political chaos has been unleashed, is there any possibility of getting the bad genie back in its bottle? When Facebook launched, founder Mark Zuckerberg braved a bold and curious global community manifesto: “Our mission is to make the world more open and connected.” That sounds good on the surface, and it sounded so good to so many of Facebook’s early employees that they rallied around the life-affirming purpose. They believed they were building a platform toward the betterment of humanity. Simultaneously, the size of the audience embracing the platform created a media opportunity unlike any other in history. No company has ever thought about achieving monetization of a billion (heck, now two billion) individuals. To make sure no money was left on the table, Zuckerberg hired Sheryl Sandberg from Google to build that side of the equation. The inherent conflicts soon became apparent. Facebook claimed to be a technology company, not a media company, even though its business model was selling advertising, which is what a media company does. To be the most valuable media company it could be, it needed two things: the world’s most in-depth data warehouse, and a rule set of utilizing that data with the fewest possible restrictions. As a business, this all made sense....

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The Press and the President

By on Nov 3, 2018 in Blog | 0 comments

White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders at a briefing of journalists this past week exclaimed in exasperation: “You guys have a huge responsibility to play in the divisive nature of this country, when ninety percent of the coverage of everything this president does is negative, despite the fact that the country is doing extremely well, despite the fact that the president is delivering on exactly what he said he was going to do if elected.” It would be difficult to disagree with her observation that media coverage of the president is 90% unfavorable. Why is the press overwhelmingly negative toward this president? 1) He lies obviously, shamelessly, and constantly. 2) His ideas and policies are uninformed, constructed from whim, and largely empirically wrong. 3) His behavior is morally repugnant and his driving force is feeding his ego. 4) The circumstances of his election are being investigated for criminal intervention by credible authorities. The press is doing its job. The press is reporting on the dangers it sees threatening our nation. Were the weighting of critique not so uniformly negative, we might wonder if there was some hidden agenda in an institutional bias, some collusion with ulterior motives. The only collective agenda I can glean is the reporting of information allowing us to make critical decisions about our freedom and well-being. Fake news is not the work product of trained journalists under credentialed editorial supervision. Journalism and a free press are the backbone that anchors the ongoing experiment that is our democracy. Fake news is the drivel that emerges from undisciplined commentary and targeted propaganda. Misdirection is a tactic of human divisiveness, subversion of logical process, and chaos that beckons autocratic control. Journalism and misdirection are not the same, unless one purposefully hijacks the other. When a true journalist makes a mistake or misstates a fact, the press runs a retraction. When an ignorant or hateful opinion-maker deliberately attempts to mask a lie as the truth, the lie is left to stand because it was intended to spread falsehood. To confuse journalism with fake news is to misunderstand the fundamental pillar protecting democracy from authoritarian rule. The press is not the enemy of the people. Our president is not...

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