Entrepreneurship and Fun

A little bit of a light day today due to other commitments. Tomorrow will be more of the same.

Entrepreneurship: Wow, two articles on start-ups versus corporate America. First,  SAMBA Blog posits that “It takes a lot more work to build a small company than it takes to build a big company.”  Read their rationale.  By the way, I agree with them.  Second, Micah talks about the differences between start-ups and corporations relative to failure.

Fun: Did you ever want to see President Obama’s Facebook status for the first 100 days?  Somehow, Slate got an unauthorized look and shares it.

Big Picture, Economy and Fun

Big Picture: Imagine that your financial records were being held by your financial planner (and if you had more than one, each in a separate system) that you were not allowed to view.  You trusted your financial planners, but if you asked questions of them, they would reply “Now, who is the financial planner here?”.  If you ever did get to see your records and noticed an error, you could not find anyone who was responsible for fixing it.  Doesn’t sound like my financial planner, thank god.  But change the subject to your relationship with your physician and you aren’t so surprised anymore.  Well, you may be surprised about how your medical records are actually kept.  In his excellent blog, e-Patient Dave talks about his adventures in Electronic Medical Records and what we can do to make things better.  Attention, open source software folks, we may need your help soon.

Economy: What is your take on these 12 iconic brands that 24/7 Wall Street believes will disappear in the next 12 months?

Fun: I thought I knew how to make a baby, but as usual, I didn’t have all the steps down right, at least according to this video.

Entreprenurship, Behind the Scenes, Behavior/Magic and Economics

Entrepreneurship: Gina Trapani discusses all kinds of neat tools, applications and vendors that can help a new business get started.

Behind the Scenes: Robert Scoble takes us inside of Zappos.com and how they can create a corporate environment that keeps their employees excited and their customers enthralled by their service.

Behavior: An article on neuroscience probably would not have caught my eye, but bring Penn and Teller into the conversation and I am hooked.  This article talks about how magicians utilize flaws in our perception to amaze us.  I viewed the balls and cups clip 3 times and still I didn’t catch everything.

Business Economics: The US Postal Service is one of those organizations that we take for granted.  6 days a week, we will have a red, white and blue truck drive up and deliver our mail, most of it “junk mail” or what the USPS calls standard mail.  What we don’t think about often is how fiscally responsible they are, what are their unfunded pension liabilities and how they make money in the age of the Internet.  This article sheds some light on how the USPS operates and offers some suggestions to make the service more effective.

How we interact with email

I remember when I was young, my mom used to write all of her friends letters on real paper and put them into the mail.  She would get handwritten responses that she could keep and treasure.  We could identify the letters from this friend by the foreign stamps and from that one by the color of ink she habitually used.

Many people have written about the lost art of writing letters.  I don’t want to argue the merits of that topic right here, although a handwritten thank you card can work wonders.  It is always interested me to read the letters between historical figures.  You can get a better picture of the people behind the public persona by reading the conversation between two people. If you have those paper documents, you can keep an archive.  This archive can then become the basis for understanding and illumination.

Today, what I want to discuss is how we can manage our communications today, especially email.

For a while there, it seemed that email was totally fungible.  I don’t have my emails from 1999 or 2000 or even 2004.  Yes, I know that they are probably out there somewhere on some archive in at old ISP (remember this for when you write something that you shouldn’t have), but certainly not in a place that can be accessed easily by my biographer in 50 years.

Google Mail has changed this for me in a big way.  It can be the same with other on-line, cloud based email services. The search capabilities and large storage capacity of these services allow you to search for old correspondence in a way that is much more helpful than reading those old piles of handwritten letters.  Don’t remember the site that had that neat financial tool?  Just search your archived mail.  How did we resolve that board question?  Review all of the relevant documents from one screen. Google gives you over 7 gigabytes of storage (and counting) in each mailbox, so that you can keep all of your emails in one place.

The challenge with this is that besides search, the tools available to help you mine the information in your Gmail archive are limited.  Sure, there are labels and filters.  Labels are great in the abstract, but as you get significant amount of mail, it becomes difficult to tag each email before archiving.  Filters can help with the labeling, but you have to know the circumstances for which you need a filter before you need a filter.  I’m sure that there are a lot of you organized types who put both to good use.  But me, I’m not so much on the organized side of things. So, what can one do?

We tend to think that the young among us are most technologically centered.  They can quickly adjust to different tools and utilize social networking to the max to achieve their goals.  However, it is interesting to note that several of the young entrepreneurs that I am mentoring have mentioned in recent meetings about the difficulties that they have responding in a timely fashion to the deluge of emails that they receive every day.

The reason that this came up was in relation to an article I read on Gigaom about Why Email Clients Need to Change?.  My email box does not look like Alistair’s, but I have the same types of problems with an email deluge. His ideas on adding features to our email clients that help us make better use of both our incoming mail and our archived mail make a lot of sense to me.

How do you manage your email?  Do you keep everything or are you a deleter? Would the tools mentioned in Alistair’s article be helpful to you?  Do you have any others that you want to add?

The Pendulum – Part 2

In the first blog post on The Pendulum, I related several instances of where peaks and valleys affect macro issues.  Things like the stock market, the credit market and global technology shifts.  But it is instructive to note that these types of patterns happen on a micro level as well.

We are all aware of the passing of time.  Even our bodies follow these rhythms.  Ever notice how some people are morning people and others are night owls.  It is due to the levels of hormones in our bodies that rise and fall, much like the pendulum.  You can perform better if you understand your particular body rhythm and try to plan your most intensive work when your body is most ready to support it.   I know that it is not totally realistic to expect your boss to understand that you are a night person when you are required to show up at 7:30 am, but you can make the effort to make the best use of your most intensive work times.

On a little grander scale, even in the Bible, Joseph told of the story of the Pendulum.

And, behold, there came up out of the River seven cows, handsome and fat of flesh and they fed in the reed grass. And, behold, seven other cows came up after them out of the River, ugly and lean of flesh and stood by the other cows upon the bank of the River. And the ugly and lean cows ate up the seven handsome and fat cows. (Genesis 41:1-4)

Seven years of plenty and then seven years of famine.  Sounds like a familiar theme.  Joseph’s advice to Pharoh was to save while times are good, in order to cushion the blows when times are not so favorable. Good advice for us all.

I think overall the key is to understand that the pendulum swings are a normal part of living in our world.  How we can plan to weather the storms or enjoy the plenty, understanding that the status quo is not stable is key to our getting the best out of our lives.

This whole topic has brought to mind a saying that my daughter has introduced me to: However good or bad a situation is, it will change.

Be ready and take charge of your reaction to the change.

Networks, Video and Entrepreneurship

Networks: Kevin Kelly wrote a book called New Rules for a New Economy in 1998. He has reprinted them as a series of blog posts and they are more relevant today than when they were first published.  A recent post talks about the mathematics of networks.  Don’t be scared.  The math is not difficult but the results are critical to our understanding of social networking.

Video: If you ever get the chance to see Seth Godin in person, do so.  If you can’t find the opportunity or want to see what I mean, check out this video from 3 years ago.

Entrepreneurship: Raman Chadha, from DePaul’s Coleman Center for Entrepreneurship writes a great article on venture funding.  I have long had the same kind of thoughts on entrepreneurship and whether angel or venture funding is right for even a small percentage of start-up ventures.

The Pendulum

Peaks and valleys.  Reminds one of a bucolic Colorado vista, perhaps Pike’s Peak and the San Luis Valley.  But our lives are driven by patterns that look like peaks and valleys.  For example, this is a graph of the stock market for the last 25 years.

S&P 500 1984-2009
S&P 500 1984-2009

Notice the number of times that the chart has significant ups and downs.  This is a way that we as humans tend to operate in our domains.  We push the level of an activity until it goes beyond a breaking point (or some external event, like 9/11, causes a breaking point) and then instead of slowly returning to an equilibrium level, the system quickly regresses back to a point well beyond a median and we start the cycle all over again.  While it is painful to go through these cycles, our historical precedents do tell us that we will come out of the valley and start to rise again within a reasonable time.  Over time, these boom-bust-boom cycles have been getting shorter but steeper.

A current example of the boom-bust-boom cycles have to do with credit.  The credit markets have acted like a pendulum, swinging from high availability, low rates to low availability, high rates.  Some of these changes were due to changed economic policy by our government and the Federal Reserve. A large part of our current credit problem is related to the reticence of banks to take on additional risk, so they have tightened down the requirements for getting credit, to consumers as well as to businesses.  I wrote about the changes that Chase has made in their lending to small businesses here. Will this get sorted out?  Yes.  How soon?  Much bigger question.

But not all peaks and valleys correspond to economic events. It has always been instructive to me to watch the technology curves.

My technology journey started with the mainframe.  Everything you could want was on the mainframe.  It had to be since you interacted with the mainframe via punched cards (yes, I am that old). All by one manufacturer, all guaranteed to work the same way, the only way.  Kind of like Ford’s Model T, in any color as long as you wanted black.  But soon, we got PC’s and things got colorful fast.  Lots of different programs, different interfaces, different data storage, little interaction.  Businesses had a hard time utilizing these PC’s; actually IT (or Data Processing as it was called in those days) had the problems.  Everybody did things differently.  So, they decided to purchase integrated ERP solutions that allowed the entire company to work together cooperatively on planning and executing, counting and selling, paying bills and receiving cash.  These also included the support software to ensure it would all work together, the databases, the communications manager, the security systems and the scheduler. Back to the mainframe mentality – easier to manage, but limited in flexibility.

But of course, people wanted their own solutions.  So, along came Unix and other open systems.  Now it was possible to pick the best of breed solutions for each system need.  Flexibility to pick and choose, difficult to integrate and make sure that Program A fed Program B the right data in the right format.  It was costly for the software companies to support – they had to have every possible combination of systems to test with and provide their tech support staff with. I likened it to going to a race track and having to make the right choice to win for 10 races.  Difficult for anyone and not efficient for the IT staff.

Yesterday’s announcement that Oracle is going to buy Sun is bringing this whole technology cycle full circle.  Now one company can sell you the database, CRM Software, ERP Solution, security and hardware to be able to guarantee that all things will work together.  IBM and HP are also looking to provide a full course solution. What could happen to companies like Dell, Cisco and Fujitsu?  Where does Microsoft play in this arena?

All I can say is that given our history with peaks and valleys, you can expect that this phase of single company providing a full suite will have a reasonable lifespan and another model will come into play. It will be fun to watch this change over time.

Tools, Behind the Scenes and Entrepreneurship

Tools: Zamzar.com is an online file conversion tool. It will take almost any kind of document, spreadsheet, presentation, text file, compressed file, audio file or video file and convert it to another format.  One of the neat new tricks is to convert a document into an audio file.  It is not a professional reading the file, but it is serviceable.

Behind the Scenes: Another in a series of posts that discuss the creation of something that you take for granted from a behind the scenes viewpoint.  Today’s topic: Magazine Subscriptions.

Entrepreneurship: Tim Ferriss, author of The 4-Hour Workweek: Escape 9-5, Live Anywhere, and Join the New Rich is a polarizing guy.  Some people love him, others… not so much.  Today, he talks with leading venture capitalists about what they look for in new business pitches.  For all of you entrepreneurs looking for capital out there, this is required reading.

Graphics, Big Idea and Economy

Graphics: I recently pointed to the Seth Godin graphics lens which talked about getting better at graphic design.  To go one better, Kristin pointed me to this site with 50 totally free lessons on graphics.

Big Idea: Ever wondered what it would take to become a blog writer?  I am living that life, but was intrigued by the manifesto posted by Chris Guillebeau.

Economy: Mike Rowe, of Dirty Jobs fame, talks about work in general in this entertaining TED Talk.

Economy, Entrepreneurship and the Government

Economy: Nassim Nicholas Taleb, author of  The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable writes today on the Financial Times about 10 things that would help us to grow beyond our current economic crisis (and prevent another).

Entrepreneurship: Paul Graham writes about an interesting way to get entrepreneurship jump started in the US: change immigration law.

Government: Here are some factoids that I learned by looking at this chart:
The FBI costs half as much as the FAA.
We spent almost twice as much for Mine Resistant Vehicles as we did to fund the entire National Science Foundation.
The Office of the Secretary of Defense costs 11 times more than to run the Office of the President.

What did you find that was wacky?