Jul 282005

Beyond CAN-SPAM: The Nightmare Continues

Beyond CAN-SPAM:  The Nightmare Continues

Turn back the clock to the end of 2003.  A bunch of states had recently passed their own anti-spam bills, and California had just passed the then-notorious SB186.  Commercial emailers were freaking out because compliance with a patchwork of state laws for email is nearly impossible given the nature of email and given the differences between the laws.  The reult of the freakout was an expedited, and decent, though far from perfect, federal law called CAN-SPAM which, among other things, preempted most of the individual state laws under the interstate commerce clause.  Most of us noted that the federal government had never worked so swiftly in recent memory.

Now it’s mid-2005, and a new cycle of state email legislation craziness is underway, this time with Michigan and Utah in the lead.  Once again, the legislation is well-intentioned but incredibly impractical.  I haven’t heard an appropriate amount of kicking and screaming about this yet, so let me give it a shot.

The laws themselves are billed as “Child Protection Acts.”  They ban email advertising (and also other electronic forms of advertising, like IM, phone, fax) to minors for things like guns, liquor, gambling, porn, tobacco, and — one of the kickers — “anything else deemed to be harmful to minors or unlawful for minors to purchase.”  The bans are in place even if the child has requested the advertising.  The proposed solution is an email address registry of chidren’s email addresses which would act as a suppression list for mailers, is run by a third party, and costs a $7 CPM per suppression run, per state, based on the size of the input file, not the size of the matches.

Let me start running down the problems here:

1. The laws won’t work comprehensively, as people have to proactively register their addresses with state registries.

2. The laws won’t do squat to prevent international or fraudulent advertisers from hitting children with their ads.

3. People with multi-purpose “family” email addresses will have to make a black-and-white decision about being on the registry.

4. Compliance will be a nightmare.  Since emailers usually don’t have a state tied to an email address, they will have to suppress their entire file against each state’s registry.

5. Charging based on the size of the input file as opposed to the number of matches is ridiculous.  It punishes mailers with large files and is completely divorced from the “value” of the service.

6. The costs are outrageous when you add them up.  A $7 CPM seems low, but multiply it by 12 months (and some people think compliance means more than monthly suppression runs) and now multiply it by at least 2 states — with another 10 or so considering similar legislation, and all of a sudden, a mailer could be paying as much as $1 per name ON THEIR FILE per year.

7. The laws are too vague and potentially too broad.  A law that prevents advertising of anything else deemed to be harmful to minors or unlawful for minors to purchase has some weird and possibly unintended definition consequences.  One example:  apparently, in Michigan, it is illegal to sell cars to minors (odd for a state that includes Detroit and licenses drivers at age 16) — so automobile advertising is a “banned category.”  Another example:  Amazon sells DVDs that are Rated R — does that mean linking to Amazon is now problematic?

8. Anyone can sue — not just state AGs, so look out for a zillion nuisance lawsuits like the old Utah “no popup” law of 2003.

9. The laws may be unconstitutional for any number of reasons, and they may also be in conflict with CAN-SPAM’s supersede clause.

The kicker?  The laws are billed as “Child Protection Laws” — so who the heck is going to stick out their neck and sue the states to force the legality issue?  I’m all for protecting our children…and for eliminating spam for that matter, but I’m sick of governments passing laws with this level of unintended consequences.  Someone ought to make a law about that!

Filed under: Email

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Jul 272005

Counter Cliche: Win The Peace

Counter Cliche:  Win The Peace

Fred’s VC cliche of the week this week is a good one, Hope for the Best and Prepare for the Worst.  It’s certainly true, as he says, for startups going through a financing, and in many other instances.  I may regret mixing business and politics here, but since Fred has done that before (with the same caveat), I’ll give it a shot as well.

As important as it is to prepare for the worst, entrepreneurs and politicians alike need to make sure they’re also planning to win the peace — in other words, planning for a successful outcome. 

How much happier would we be as a country at war right now if our administration had had a full plan in place for what to do after they toppled Saddam?  Similarly, CEOs need put some cycles against scenario planning for successful outcomes so they’re not caught flat footed when things go well.  How can lack of planning to win the peace come back to bite you?  Here are a few ways:

- You’re not staffed properly to support a big contract that comes in — and you have no pipeline of candidates or contractors to backfill

- You don’t have media buys lined up for an marketing campaign you want to run as soon as the financing closes

- You haven’t started an integration plan before a tenuous acquisition closes, so integration doesn’t happen quickly enough

There are certainly other examples as well, in war as in comapny-building, but what it all comes down to is the need to scenario plan for best cases as well as worst cases.  It’s all about avoiding costly lead times.

Filed under: Entrepreneurship

Jul 252005

Book Short: Why Not Both?

Book Short:  Why Not Both?

Craig Hickman’s Mind of a Manager, Soul of a Leader talks about how tapping the natural tension between managers and leaders allows an organization to achieve its best.  It covers dozens of topical areas and for each compares how a prototypical manager handles the area (practical, reasonable, decisive) vs. how a prototypical leader handles it (visionary, empathetic, and flexible).  Of course, the book describes the ideal organization as “balanced an integrated” between the two extremes.

My take for startups, a topic not addressed in the book, is that the job of the entrepreneur CEO is to be both manager and leader, and try to do both roles effectively without driving the team nuts.  The book says that “managers wield authority, leaders apply influence.”  Entrepreneurs have to be comfortable with both styles.  Thanks to my colleague Stephanie Miller for giving me a copy of this one.

Jul 182005

Highs and Lows

Highs and Lows

I was reminded recently of one of my favorite entrepreneur sayings.  What drives me nuts isn’t the inevitable presence of highs and lows of running a new company, it’s when they happen at the same time.

It’s one thing to get used to the roller coaster ride of running a startup.  That’s part of the fun and the challenge of it all.  There are great moments when everything’s working beautifully.  Your strategy is proving to be spot-on.  Your team is executing brilliantly.  Your biggest client renews and gives you a testimonial.  Then there are the dark moments of despair.  You’re running out of cash.  The new product release is behind schedule.  A competitor steals a top client.  No one lives for the lows, but you at least grow to anticipate them and realize that "this, too, shall pass."

But the thing I can never get used to is when those highs and lows occur simultaneously.  It just seems unfair.  Let me enjoy the good news — whatever it is — for at least a day or two before clocking me with something terrible!  But perhaps that’s just another, even more poignant part of the humbling process that comes with running a startup.

Filed under: Entrepreneurship

Jul 112005

New Del.icio.us for: Tag

New Del.icio.us for: Tag

As usual the laggard behind Fred and Brad, I just set up a for:mattblumberg tag on del.icio.us.  Feel free to tag away for me!  If you don’t know what this means, you can read either of their postings about it here or here.

Filed under: Email

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Jul 062005

Book short: Blink

Book short:  Blink

Blink, by Malcolm Gladwell, is a must read for marketers, entrepreneurs, and VCs alike, just as is the case with Gladwell’s first book, The Tipping Point.

Where The Tipping Point theorizes about how humans relate to each other and how fads start and flourish in our society, Blink theorizes about how humans make decisions and about the interplay between the subconscious, learned expertise, and real-time inputs.  But Gladwell does more than theorize — he has plenty of real world examples which seem quite plausible, and he peppers the book with evidence from some (though hardly a complete coverage of relevant) scientific and quasi-scientific studies.

Blink for Entrepreneurs/CEOs:  What’s the most critical lesson in Malcolm Gladwell’s Blink, as it relates to entrepreneurs/CEOs?  It’s about bias in hiring.  Most of us make judgments about potential new hires quite quickly in the initial interview.  The symphony example in the book is the most painfully poignant — most major symphony orchestras hired extremely few women until they started conducting auditions behind a screen.  It’s not clear to me yet how to stop or even shrink hiring bias, but I suspect the answer lies in pre-interview work around defining specific criteria for the job and scoring all candidates on the same set of criteria.

Blink for VCs:  What’s the most critical lesson in Malcolm Gladwell’s Blink, as it relates to VCs?  It’s about picking companies to back.  Even VCs who are virtuosos, as Gladwell would call them, can make poor judgments on companies to back based on their own personal reaction to a company’s product or service, as opposed to the broader marketplace’s reaction.  Someone poured a whole lot of money into Webvan, Pets.com, eToys, and the like.

Blink for Marketers:  What’s the most critical lesson in Malcolm Gladwell’s Blink, as it relates to Marketers?  It’s the importance of multivariate regression testing.  No, really, I’m not kidding, although there’s no doubt a less math-y way of saying it — “test everything.”  The Coca-Cola Company thought they were doing the right thing in creating New Coke because they were losing the Pepsi Challenge.  But what they didn’t realize was that Pepsi (unintentionally or not) had suckered them into believing that the single-sip test was cause for reengineering a century of product, when in reality Coke was probably just being out-advertised.  Christian Brothers Brandy was going out of its mind losing market share to competitor E&J until someone realized that they just needed to change the shape of their bottle.

If you haven’t yet done so, go buy the book!  It’s a very quick read and incredibly thought provoking.  And if you haven’t yet read The Tipping Point, it’s a must as well.

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