Archive for July, 2010

Obligated, not entitled

July 30th, 2010

Some days ago I read on an Australian blog the Small and Medium Enterprises were desperately looking for leaders. Not only those who pop in, give a speech or workshop and off they go, but who actually do lead by making things happen where they need to.

Now what most people mean when they cry out this way is “I need someone from a high-profile university to make my problems go away”. Because that’s what they’re looking for when you read their job ads. Now I cannot prove that an MBA graduate were there wrong kind of person for this. But I can prove that there’s a better way to pre-select. I don’t know about every country’s anti-discrimination laws, but in general what you want to do is have people send a full photo, not just portrait, so you can examine their posture. I don’t mean if their spine is deformed or one leg is longer than the other. I mean the way they present themselves, which resembles the way they conceive of themselves. As the saying goes, more than a thousand words.

What brought me to this conclusion was a number of photographs I saw on the web the other day. On each there was the same group of university students and grads who run a sort of business consulting agency. What all of these photos were yelling at me was that these young people felt entitled to be offered only the best jobs. Which to me was quite disconcerting, for a number of reasons.

You don’t get to go to a university because you’re extremly brilliant (those who are go there at 12, so anyone who’s not 12 when they commence university might correct their self image in that respect). You get to go to a university because you’re good at school, which again is not a product of your intelligence but how good you are at meeting expectations and working to spec. And university is an extension of this, only the bar is raised by blurring the spec so you have to figure out what it is and then try to do a point landing. I’m always impressed by the insignificance of theses that grants students an academic title. The only reason they occupy a hundred pages to make a no more point than a blog post is footnotes and the bibliography, the requirements of scientific research.

[When I was in my first semester studying business information technology, the math professor started her first lecture by prompting a complex equation to the wall “See, that’s what you will know how to calculate by the end of the semester.” Back then, had I had the wit I have today, I’d have asked her how this will help us significantly improve the world, exactly. I doubt it would have enabled anyone to show more initiative.]

And the point is: a better education is not an entitlement to a better job. It is an obligation to put all you know and can do to a good use and the benefit of all. Nothing less. Education is the prerequisite that enables you to create value that people will eventually pay for. Nothing more. Someone with no education can only contribute labour (in the workplace), while educated people can organize and get stuff moving. But they don’t, because they feel and believe they’re getting paid merely for showing up. After all, they’re entitled to this because of all they’ve been doing to get there, right?

So the question for you becomes: Is this the kind of person who you believe to lead your company to a better future? Or are you looking for someone who’s hungry and humble too?

Industry indeed

July 29th, 2010

A friend responded to my post yesterday that he couldn’t imagine a star being made without an industry. I agree. Today, they need each other more than ever.

In the pre-industrial age, fame used to be directly related to merit. Think Michelangelo. Sometimes fame would follow merit with years of delay. Think Mozart, Rembrandt, van Gogh, Robert Johnson. But some people actually used fame to promote. Benjamin Franklin, in his role as ambassador to France, and his fellow Founding Fathers believed that the fact of Franklin’s image appearing on fashion items, fans and perfume bottles would help to attract interest in and spread the ideas of the new born nation. The first man who combined people’s fame with industrial goods was Josiah Wedgwood, who came up with the idea of making collectible portrait medaillons of “Illustrious Moderns” like Voltaire and Rousseau. (Interesting read: Star Crazy, section 2)

What all the people have in common is that they were only known to a comparably small circle of people. Entertainment was only for those who could afford it.

Then came the invention of free time. This might sound a little crazy, but before the industrialization, there was no free time as such. And it made perfect sense, because people needed time to spend the money they earned in the factory. Which allowed more industries to spawn. And so forth.

Next step: cinema. And this changed everything. Within a few years, film producers figured that people were not only into films, but also into actors starring the movies. Hence a perfect cycle could be set up: People go to the movies, papers print news about the stars, people notice and tell their friends, more people go to the movies. Easy as pie. All you needed to do was printed your actor’s name on the poster promoting the next movie. And the second best thing was that everybody could afford it.

The best thing about all this was that it educated people into a reverse logic: Publicity equals merit. You don’t get in the paper for nothing, do you? And so whatever you wanted to promote, all you needed to do was to make it appear it on billboards, in newspapers and magazines, radio and finally TV. And entire industries could sell their products riding on the back of the celebrities.

Now, what happens if you want to sell more products? You need more stars. This is the race we’re still running today. There are ever more celebrities because there is ever more stuff to be sold, and the diversion of interests and markets produced space that needed to be filled with more faces to put ads next to.

What’s critical now is to estimate whether this will go on, because people are so much int the reactive mode of consuming that they won’t take the time to ask themselves what they care about, what matters to them, and start following their passion. I don’t believe that people are passionate about consuming. They just keep telling themselves they don’t know what to do other than that. What gives me hope that this can change is the fact that it took almost a century to educate people to behave that way, so obviously it’s not part of our nature. The cavemen didn’t have to keep up with the Joneses, neither did a pre-industrial person.

What I wanted to point out 2 days ago was that you don’t need an industry to make a living by making your art. If you want fame as in “as seen on TV”, you still need the industry, as of today. And you need to sacrifice your art, round off the edges in favour of being more average. Not totally average, but to a certain degree. The reason why Cannibal Corpse were not featured as being outrageous on German TV, but Berlin rapper Sido was, is simply because he’s more average in terms of language: my grandmother can understand his swearing, but not Chris Barnes’s or George Fisher’s. That’s media business. An industry indeed.

Your opinion matters

July 28th, 2010

You can now comment on posts on ideasarehere.net! I’d be happy to see you share your opinion, experience and expertise. At this stage, comments will automatically be closed after  5 days, we’ll see if this is good or bad, adjustments will be made if necessary. Should you notice any glitches or errors regarding comments, please report them via e-mail. Although everything has been tested under real life conditions, that’s no guarantee it works as good on this blog. Let’s discuss.

Will & Value

July 28th, 2010

Fast Company reports that Internet users obviously are not willing to pay for content. In this case, it’s a newspaper, that, very much like Rupert Murdoch’s London Times, has moved it’s content behind a paywall, and what happened? After 3 months, they only had 35 subscribers. For an acquisition of 650 million dollars, this is obviously a failed investment at the moment.

But it’s not a surprise. It’s not that users are not willing to pay, they only pay when they see a point (or better, a personal advantage) in doing so. In this context, relying on people paying for stuff they can have for free on another channel is no business model.

No more bottleneck

July 27th, 2010

An industry is one or more organizations turning a unique thing into a mass product. The magic happens when they succeed in transferring the real value of the original to a perceived value of the copy. Which is exactly what the music industry did.

From the first LPs over 100 years ago to the CDs in the 90s, the music business was able to pull that trick because of several reasons: Everybody loves music. Music is an expression of self. Music is fashion. Being a fan of something is great. They could serve all these needs at once. And they had control over the whole system. Music corporations were not only making the discs, but also handling the licenses of the music itself. And they decided who would become the next big thing and who wouldn’t. They were the bottleneck with a built-in valve to both artists and audience.

Of course this has changed. The bottleneck has been bypassed with millions of tubes. There’s no more need for any musician to wait for an A&R’s consent so they can make an album. They make an album and give it away for free. Of course the industry doesn’t like this, because they can no more justify the prices they used to charge. It’s understandable they still blame illegal downloading, but this isn’t the real problem. Since the introduction of tape recordings, people shared their music. On the web, they can only do it on a larger scale, which means the permeation time is reduced. Illegal downloading itself is out of fashion for years.

Here’s why: People have not been re-educated. What they were educated to do was to wait for the next big thing to be announced via print or in-store ads, radio DJs or TV commercials and go buy it. Listen and repeat. A tradition they could easily pass to their children because it was all passive.

Now imagine going to somebody and saying: “There’s 10 million artists out there on the web, find one you like, become a fan and help them become superstars. You can do it. If you don’t do it, nobody will.” People still think upside down. Someone will tell them who is a star so they know what to buy and like. Same problem with radio. They too don’t know where to go. Now we get to know that they’re no experts at music at all, they only eat what they’re being served. And because great fresh produce on the music biz menu is sparse they resort to canned stuff.

What people have learned quickly is that the likelihood of excistence of a ‘more value for money’ or ‘same value for less money’ alternative is 10,000 times bigger thanks to the web. But they have no clue how to find it. This sounds like a big opportunity. Imagine having a site that allows to search for…stop.

Actually, this is what musicians promoting themselves need to do, similar to approaches Derek Sivers posted years ago. So if you are “U2 with hard guitar riffs and Shakira on drugs singing”, don’t be afraid to use that term all over your promo activities. Chances are people will (slowly) learn to search for phrases exactly like this on the web. Maybe there’s a staging post like a site with a set of modules that give users a rough idea what to look for and ultimately make sophisticated use of Google’s search to deliver to the user’s doorstep. In the long run, the new culture of finding music will have worked its way to the people who you want to be found by. One way or the other. And if they happen to be brought by their friends, you’d welcome them too, I guess. Just remember you can’t force anyone to find you.

For musicians, the old way of thinking ‘how you make it’ was more attractive because the story was one of a single effort, very hard but only once and you’d be done — like buying a lottery ticket. If you won, you’d just have to do what you like and what you’re good at — making music. Today’s story is one of continuous effort, doing what you don’t like because more often than not you’re not good at it — marketing, selling, taking care of stuff — and if you’re lucky, you can spend an hour a day making music, because the rest of your day is consumed by a job you need to have to pay your bills.
The old dream was that you had to get out of your comfort zone just once, get that record deal, and you’re good to go. The new nightmare is that you have been banned from your comfort zone permanently. Meet people. Talk to people. Get people to help you. Realize that selling music is – like selling whatever – about people. This is scary, especially for introverts.
Another problem musicians might be facing is what to tell to their (yet to become) fans. Having a blog is a sensible thing, but of course no one expects an artist to write a cat blog. Artists should be telling stories about how great the exclusive night club party was or how they totally wrecked the hotel room $50,000-a-night-suite. Or if they want to be on the safe side, what the latest charity event was like (and who they ended up in hotel with and totally wrecked…you get the idea). After all, they’re stars, aren’t they? So we want them to act like stars. People don’t want to read about how hard your day was before you picked up the guitar to write a new song. Booooorrrrinnng! Or how you tried to do whatever. Nobody cares, as long as it’s not in their particular field of interest. And 95% of the time, it’s not. Don’t bother me with details. Somehow an audience is the worst boss you’ll ever have, as long as you have to prove yourself. When you’re successful, this takes care of itself. Of course it doesn’t, but it’s easy compared to being the unknown artist, isn’t it?

New found Power

July 26th, 2010

One of my favourite news releases last week came from the German chancellor, Angela Merkel, in which she complained that it’d be ever harder to get political messages and issues to people because especially the younger generation would not get their overall news coverage from the traditional media, but instead selectively from their favourite channels on the internet. Her final conclusion was that things used to be easier years back, because when people met in the workplace, they’d all talk about the same topics (note: this was back in the days when there were only three channels on TV, and people got their paper every morning).

This is all true, except she elegantly left out the part that’s worst for her and all the others that made a profit from the way things used to be. Not only do the established channels keep on losing their influence, but it is ever easier for people to practise real democracy. Because if you really care about something, you just have to connect to people who do as well. Then you can start an online petition, and all it takes is 50,000 subscribers within 3 weeks. And if there’s one thing we can learn from a pretzel, it’s quite easy to gather 50,000 people — if they care. Because if they don’t, they won’t go through all hassle with registering on the parliament’s web site just to click a button. That’s the only obstacle. Other than that, there’s nothing that could stop anyone from using their democratic power.

And that’s scary for polticians, because not only will their flaws and misbehaviour be spread faster than ever, but also people can now make them go away, or the rules they’re trying to establish. Who loses? Everyone who profited from the old system: Lobbies, who still spend millions to buy votes help MPs reconsider their opinion. Politicians who are now exposed more than ever and thus have to deal with the consequences. Some years ago these “minor issues” would go by the board in favour of “important news” in the general news coverage. Yet the traditional media are losing power and influence in both directions. And if they can’t control the public, they don’t help to maintain civil order, and then they’re losing value to the ones in power, who in return won’t see a lot of use in supporting a system that doesn’t support them. This top-down system was built in the fact that there was no other choice, no politician or similar folk needed to build an asset of permission to talk to the people directly — because this taken care of by the media, mostly public broadcast. The situation has flipped over (to be honest, it did so slow enough that anyone could have easily figured where this was going), and no matter how much anyone who seemed to have a voice that mattered now doesn’t.

There used to be a small number of players on the political field — now everyone can have their license to play too. This is a great opportunity which can change our lives dramatically, only if we make use of it.

The manual that didn’t help

July 25th, 2010

In his talk during last year’s Business of Software conference, Don Norman mentioned the practical use of mock-ups when you’re designing a user interface.

And unsurprisingly, this also works the other way round when you’re explaining a UI.

The folks at Universal Publishing Production Music obviously didn’t know or think so. They sent an email with 17 paragraphs explaining the menus and structure of their soon-to-be-launched new website, purely verbal. I understand that you might leave away the images when you ship the manual with the software (as the Cupertino guys do), because it’s there, on screen.

But when it’s neither on screen nor in the manual, none of both is of any use, is it?

For beta or worse

July 24th, 2010

The other day, when I posted my insight on that one social network, one comment I got was “Tell that to the customer”.

Here’s what I responded:
“We’re all customers, aren’t we? And what do we appreciate more, trying to find an existing solution that’s already out there (a.k.a. “Check the FAQs” and “search for a tutorial”) or having someone take the time to (find out and) tell us what to do? Of course every customer prefers to have problems solved immediately, but that’s a different aspect of the same issue. Engineers and technicians used to be not very good at interaction with real people (yep, that’s a clichĂ©), that’s why they preferred to keep track of every issue and include it in the manual or FAQ — or, ideally, they would solve the issue in a self-explaining way (not likely, but hey..). And -surprise!- people have not embraced studying manuals cover to cover, because it’s boring, techy stuff! Same problem as before.

Another point: An angry customer is just as good as a happy one, because he gives you two opportunities: You can solve his problem AND make him happy. That’s a reward for everyone involved, isn’t it? :)”

The reply to which was: ” ‘Of course every customer prefers to have problems solved immediately’ – You said it. And so everything else becomes void :-P Welcome to my world!”

This reminded me of one of my favourite drawings. And it’s quite interesting to consider it in the context of software.

20 years ago, handling computers was not very straightforward. You had to learn a set of commands to tell the machine what to do, which in itself was awkward enough to keep the majority of people away from it. Unless, of course, your computer’s brand contained a fruit. There was little convenience in using these gray boxes, and the once who used them were in majority expert enough to find workarounds in case something caused an error, like “Oh, this field requires only digits to be entered, and I entered letters, so it didn’t store them.”.

The first major shift happened when software became more accessible by graphical user interfaces (GUI). The upside for the software companies was they could sell more because there were more customers because of the improved convenience. The downside was that the more people used software, the less experienced they were. Thus manuals grew ever larger, and programmers had to implement more error handling and feedback mechanisms to tell the users what to do when the software didn’t deliver what the user thought it should.

The second major shift happened when computers became ubiquitous. Now software designers had to deal with the whole range of users from absolute newbies to experts who had been using their software since version 1.0. The analogy here is the VCR. Every household had at least one, but even in the 90s, when VCRs were sophisticated as they could be, only a small fraction of people would know how to set the time. It just wasn’t straightforward. It’s like comparing Microsoft to Apple to Linux. Every company or project has it’s own approach of how things should be, and some people favor one over another because it matches their expectation.

Nevertheless, it’s still software which has been made by people who do not always consider or who can’t anticipate every way a user will use their product. This is a given which also applies to custom designed software. People do not know everything they want their software to do, because they don’t care about what happens under the hood. What they do care about is the look of the GUI, and ideally, error handling and feedback functions that do not make them feel stupid.

Another thing that users in general have little concept of is “beta”, meaning “it should work, but there will be some glitches that we have to figure out yet”. Which is why most beta versions are free, because no one can expect you to pay for a product that doesn’t work. Or can they?

Zynga’s very popular game Farmville is labeled as beta ever since its release one year ago, spreading like wildfire with more than 70,000,000 players worldwide. Like other games, this one has a virtual currency allowing you to buy stuff in the game. One way to increase your amount of virtual currency is to buy it with real money. And what happens (quite predictably) is that people are confusing things: The game is free and still in beta, so you can’t expect it to work perfectly. But what you buy should be yours no matter what. This explosive combination detonates every once in a while. It’s technically okay when the game crashes, but not when items they bought disappear. But people do not distinguish between the two. Their posture is: “I pay for this, so I can expect it to work.” Which is not quite the case. What’s worse though is that they a) keep on playing no matter what, and b) they complain to the public, but not to Zynga. This is not changing anything, it’s just whining.

One more thing before I’m trying to wrap this up: Software design is also about fashion. It doesn’t matter if the latest trend or technique adds any value to your project, but you better brace yourself that your customer will ask for it — just because they can! They pick up something somewhere, and they will ask you just to look smart themselves, impress their peers, whatever.

So what do we make of all of this? You have to embrace a number of things:

  • Whatever approach you take, one size will not fit all. There will always be someone screwing up, and that’s when your phone rings.
  • Be careful about customer’s expectations. There’s a large shift as soon as money is involved.
  • People hardly call when everything is alright. That’s when you should call to ask for improvements and the like.
  • Expect your customers to be human, not tech experts. This also implies that they will react as humans do, meaning they will be angry when they call you in case something fails. That’s ok. You have the opportunity to solve their problem AND lighten their mood. Give them a hug.

How to make a dent in the universe

July 23rd, 2010

If you belong to the people who believe that this is why we’re here (and I hope you do), you might have wondered how to accomplish this noble quest. And when you look at the man who coined this term, or rather his company, you might get the impression the way to make a dent is to pull together all you got for one do-or-die impact. It’s not. Chances are you’ll fail, miserably — because you don’t have the leverage.

Here’s an alternative: Make it little by little, piece by piece. The vast majority of successes happened that way, we only forget because it’s not such an impressive story to tell.

Why?

July 22nd, 2010

This was the only feedback I received on my Facebook post one week ago. And it’s quite interesting, not specifically in and of itself, but because of the context.

People hardly ever ask why when they’re assigned a task by a superior. This is understandable, because we’ve been learning to comply since Day One in school. But does it make sense? My point is not to refuse any order as a matter of principle, but every time you are not clear about or do not agree with the steps and results of it. It might help to have an alternative handy, though. Things need to get done, but we decide the way the they get done to what end.

On the other hand, people are very quick to ask for a reason when they see no direct benefit for themselves. So when you ask someone to do good, this unfolds a philosphical debate on altruism rather than getting something done. Contributing and sharing useful information is still considered as deliberately losing your competetive edge. People have not yet learned to recognise and appreciate added value, especially when it needs to pile up to stand out. The (only) sensible qustion to ask when someone asks you to contribute is ‘Why not?’.

Opportunism does not prevail in the long run. What’s at stake here is not short-term advantages and the quick buck, but relevant traits such as generosity, sociability, commitment, responsibility, vision and leadership.