Jul 312010

I Don’t Want to Be Your Friend (Today), part III

I Don’t Want to Be Your Friend (Today), part III

My first thought when my colleague Jen Goldman forwarded me a SlideShare presentation that was 224 pages long was, “really?”  But a short 10 minutes and 224 clicks later, I am glad I spent the time on it.

Paul Adams, a Senior User Experience Researcher at Google, put the presentation up called The Real Life Social Network.  Paul describes the problem I discuss in Part I and Part II of this series much more eloquently than I have, with great real world examples and thoughts for web designers at the end.

If you’re involved in social media and want to start breaking away from the “one size of friend fits all” mentality – this is a great use of time.

Mar 172010

Book Short: Gladwell Lite

Book Short:  Gladwell Lite

What the Dog Saw, And Other Adventures (book, Kindle) is Malcolm Gladwell’s latest book.  Unlike his three other books, which I quite enjoyed:

this was not a complete book, but rather a compendium of his New Yorker articles loosely grouped into three themes.

If you love Gladwell and don’t read The New Yorker, it’s not a bad read. He’s a fantastic writer, and his vignettes are interesting.  There are many “hmmm” moments as we learn why ketchup always tastes the same but mustard doesn’t; why Ron Popeil is a great salesman of kitchen gadgets; or why the inventor of the birth control pill thought the Pope would endorse it.  But it falls far short of his three books, which go deep into topics and leave a much more lasting impression/impact.

Jan 262010

Context is King

Context is King

A small post with a good point.  I noticed in The Economist this week something that struck me.  They posted a correction to a prior article.  Publications do that all the time, but this particular correction was placed on a page in the same section of the magazine in which the error appeared a couple weeks before.  Most print publications tend to bury their corrections in the front or the back where they never get seen.  But this one was right in the middle of the magazine, saying “we made a mistake – right here.”  Noteworthy to me for its show of transparency, always appreciated but not seen frequently enough in “official” things.

Filed under: Business, Current Affairs


Nov 162009

Book Short: Sloppy Sequel

Book Short:  Sloppy Sequel

SuperFreakonomics, by Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner, wasn’t a bad book, but it wasn’t nearly as good as the original Freakonomics, either.  I always find the results of “naturally controlled experiments” and taking a data-driven view of the world to be very refreshing.  And as much as I like the social scientist versions of these kinds of books like Malcolm Gladwell’s The Tipping Point and Blink (book; blog post), there’s usually something about reading something data driven written by a professional quant jock that’s more reassuring.

That’s where SuperFreakonomics fell down a bit for me.  Paul Krugman has described the book in a couple different places as “snarky and contrarian.”  I typically enjoy books that carry those descriptors, but this one seemed a bit over the top for economists — like a series of theories looking for data more than raw data adding up to theories.Nowhere is this more true than the chapter on climate change.  It’s a shame that that chapter seems to be swallowing up all the public discussion about the book, because there are some good points in that chapter, and the rest of the book is better than that particular chapter, but such is life.

As with all things related to the environment, I turned to my friend Andrew Winston’s blog, where he has a good post about how the authors kind of miss the point about climate change…and he also has a series of links to other blog posts debunking this one chapter.  If you’re into the topic, or if you read the book, follow the chain here for good reading.  My conclusion about this chapter, being at least somewhat informed about the climate change debate, is that the book seems to have sloppy writing and editing at best, possibly deliberately misleading at worst.  (Incidentally, the reaction in the blogosphere seems highly emotional, other than Andrew’s, which probably doesn’t serve the reactors well.)

But I’ll assume the best of intentions.  Some of the points made aren’t bad – there is no debate about the problem or the need to solve it, the authors express legitimate concern that current solutions, especially those requiring behavioral change, will be too little too late, and most interestingly, they show an interest in alternative approaches like geo-engineering.  I hadn’t been familiar with that topic at all, but I’m now much more interested in it, not because it’s a “silver bullet” approach to dealing with climate change, but because it’s a different approach, and complex problems like climate change deserve to have a wide range of people working on multiple types of solutions.  I met Nathan Myhrvold once (I almost threw up on him during a job interview, which is another story for another day), and it makes me very happy that his brilliance is being applied to this problem as a general principle.

As I said, though, beyond this one chapter, the book is good-not-great.  But it certainly is chock full of cocktail party nuggets!

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Oct 222009

If this madness all ended tomorrow, I would do…almost nothing

If this madness all ended tomorrow, I would do…almost nothing

(This post originally appeared on FindYourNerve on October 21)

I don’t know what you call the last 12 months of global macroeconomic meltdown.  I’ve taken to calling it the Great Repression.  In part because it’s somewhere in between a Recession and a Depression, in part because it’s certainly repressed the wants and needs of startups and growth companies the world over.  And it makes for good cocktail party chatter.

Someone asked me a question the other day, which started off with “Now that the recession is over…”  I can’t even remember the end of the question.  I got lost in the framing of it, mostly because I’m not convinced it’s over yet.  Fine, fine, Bernanke says it’s over.  But he couldn’t possibly have used more caveats or more cautious language to couch his statement.  I haven’t seem great signs of a recovery, in any case.  But the question got me thinking.  What would I do if the recession really was over, or if I knew that, say, tomorrow, the heavens would open up and swallow our inflation fears, deflation fears, and collective global deficits whole?

You know what?  I wouldn’t do a thing.  That’s not entirely true.  I’d probably sleep better that night.  But I wouldn’t do a lot of other things out of the gate.  This last year has tested nerves.  My nerve as a CEO, my Board’s nerve, and the collective nerve of our organization.  And we’ve pulled off a great year.  We will still grow close to 50%, we greatly expanded our operating margins and are generating nice cash flow, and we preserved all jobs, salaries, and core benefits (all five of our objectives that I laid out 12 months ago when the &*%$ started to hit the fan). 

So, why wouldn’t I do anything different if I knew the world would be a different place tomorrow?  Because holding our nerve this past year has changed a lot of things about our organization for the better, and I don’t want to see us reverse course on those things just because we can.  Here’s one example, one of many we have – when we cut our travel budget by 50% this year, everyone on the team looked at us like we were crazy and said there was no way we’d be able to make budget.  Guess what – we BEAT the slashed budget by almost a third, without complaint!  Why should we triple it going forward to get back to where we were? 

Anyway, other companies can lose their nerve when they aren’t forced to have it.  As for me and Return Path, while we will certainly move some things back to normal over time as the world improves, it won’t be a wholesale reversion to yesteryear.

Jul 232009

A David Allen nightmare

Originally uploaded by heif

A David Allen nightmare

The comments on Flickr are almost as funny as the picture, but for those of you who can’t see the detail, I believe this is Esther Dyson peering over an inbox that has almost 4.3 billion emails in it.

Filed under: Current Affairs, Email


Jul 092009

Opening Night

Opening Night

My brother Michael, internet marketer by day and a writer by night, had his first play produced last night off-Broadway at the Manhattan Repertory Theater’s SummerFest.  The play is a romantic comedy called Fallout, and it’s my favorite thing he’s written of about 8-10 works I’ve read over the years, both screen and stage plays. 

This is the first time I’ve ever had a bit of a “behind the scenes” look at an Opening Night, and it was fun to be a part of it.  When I think about entrepreneurial pursuits in business, I’m not sure this even compares.  For Michael, it seemed to be the equivalent of a company’s founding, a product launch, and an IPO — all rolled into one.  It was more intense than any individual thing I’ve seen in business over the years. 

And it came out great.  The play was a big success with the audience (and not just among those of us whose last name is Blumberg).  Michael, the director Robin, and the incredibly talented cast did a great job, so much so that the theater company is extending the run to one extra night, this Sunday at 7 p.m., since the three initial nights are sold out.  Anyone interested, the number to call for tickets is 646-329-6588.

Filed under: Current Affairs, New York

Jun 182009

The Passion of the Specialist

The Passion of the Specialist

I remember once talking to my friend Cella when she was between jobs.  She said she was working out 9 hours a week, which I found stunning at the time.  I try very hard to get 3 hours a week in, and I am usually successful, but it's not without sacrificing sleep and being deliberate about my schedule.  So 9 felt luxurious, but appropriate for someone between jobs.

With that as a frame of reference, I have heard lots of definitions or embodiments of the word "commitment" before, but I ran across another one the other day that I still find mindboggling.  I have a gym friend at the New York Sports Club where I work out — one of those anonymous friends that people get in New York that's not really a friend.  The guy on the train.  The woman behind the counter at the deli, etc.  People, as Bert & Ernie would say, who are "in the neighborhood that you see every day."

This guy, Jonathan, is a gifted runner.  That's clear from watching him, even on a treadmill.  He runs 6 minute miles without breaking much of a sweat.  And he can go for a long time.  I am only in the gym a few times a week, so it never occurred to me until today to ask him how much he runs and works out each week.  80-90 miles running, and 14-15 hours a week total including weights and biking, was the answer.  He's not training for a marathon, or an ironman.  He just loves running and being in shape.

That's a level of commitment that's stunning and reminds me that we can make time to do anything really well if we set our minds to it and are willing to sacrifice other things to get there.  The passion of the specialist is a rare and special thing — it isn't better or worse than the breadth of a talented generalist, but it's amazing to see and quite inspiring.

Filed under: Current Affairs

May 272009

Book Short: Entrepreneurs in Government

Book Short:  Entrepreneurs in Government

Leadership and Innovation:  Entrepreneurs in Government, edited by a professor I had at Princeton, Jim Doig, is an interesting series of mini-biographies of second- and third-tier government officials, mostly from the 1930s through the 1970s.  The book’s thesis is that some of the most interesting movers and shakers in the public arena (not elected officials) have a lot of the same core skills as private sector entrepreneurs.

The thesis is borne out by the book, and the examples are interesting, if for no other reason than they are about a series of highly influential people you’ve probably never heard of.  The guy who ran the Port Authority of New York for 30 years.  The guy who built the Navy’s fleet of nuclear submarines.  The head of NASA who put a man on the moon.

The biggest gap I identified between the success of these individuals and business entrepreneurs is the need for cultivation of direct relationships with congressional leaders, true in almost all cases.  I’m not sure there’s a proper analog — shareholders, maybe — but that’s clearly a skill that is required for the heads of agencies to succeed with their political patrons.

It’s an interesting read overall, particularly if you’re an entrepreneur who is considering a future career change into government.

May 182009

A Network of Teams, Not an Integrated System

A Network of Teams, Not an Integrated System

We were in and out of the hospital a lot back in March/April for the last few weeks with one of our kids (she’s ok now).  One of us was with her 24 hours a day for the 10-11 days she was hospitalized, with lots of down time, which gave me lots of time to observe health care in action.  While she ultimately got very good care at a very good hospital, it was incredibly clear to me that the hospital functioned as a network of teams, not as an integrated system.

The nurses were great.  Followed their routine practices and responded to doctors’ orders on cue.  Same with the nursing assistants.  Same with the docs.  Same with the phlebotomists and labs.  Same with the hospital support staff.  But the hand-offs from one team to the next, and from one shift to the next within a team, were seriously lacking.

What was wrong with this?  Nothing was optimized around the patient.  I mentioned this to my father-in-law, who is an HMO executive, and he noted that the concept of “patient-centric care” was a hot topic in managed care right now — but that it had also been a hot topic 10-15 years ago, to no apparent end (and not just in this one hospital that we were at).  Seems like customer relationship management became a persistent priority in the rest of the business world years ago.  Why hasn’t this stuck in health care?

This was a great exercise for me in thinking about the customer-centric view of a business.  We talk here at Return Path about “stapling yourself to a customer” to see what they see.  Every business should go through that exercise at some level regularly to make sure they’re functioning as an integrated system as far as the outside world is concerned.