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January 27, 2009

I like living in Boston

It's good to live in a part of the country where this is true -- we have smart and engaged people here!

The fall Arbitron radio ratings arrived this week and reported that WBUR is Boston's number one station in afternoon drive time, among 25-54-year-old listeners and number three in morning drive in that same demographic. We’re also number one in the 35-64 age group for full week listening. In addition, WBUR was five among 18-49-year- old listeners. These are all remarkable achievements for a public radio station.

These may very well be the strongest numbers in the station's history. Virtually every program and time period performed strongly - Morning Edition, All Things Considered, On Point, Here and Now, Radio Boston, Only a Game, and the Saturday and Sunday morning and mid-day hours. In fact, the evening rebroadcast—when everyone’s home from work—of On Point is number one in the M-F, 7-9pm time slot.

This comes from an email from public radio station WBUR in Boston.

Celtics are back in high gear

I wrote back on January 7th about the slump that the Celtics were in at that time.  I commented that we'd find out if Doc Rivers is really a good coach.  Would he be able to turn them around?

Well, they lost their next game, but they haven't lost since.  I've noticed a significant sense of urgency and really strong defense.  They'be been getting off to great starts and putting teams away quickly.  Also, I think that they'll benefit from the fact that they have a more spread out schedule for the second half of the season.  And, despite their losing seven out of nine slump, they are just slightly behind the Cavaliers and Lakers for the best record in the NBA.  And, the Lakers come to Boston on February 5th.

If you agreed with me that the slump was a test for Doc Rivers, you'd have to say that he passed with flying colors.

I think that the Celtics performance is heavily dependent on Rajon Rondo.  When he plays well, the ball moves a lot, and they get a lot of great shots.  And, their defense is very tough with Rondo ballhawking all the time.  Let's hope he stays consistent through the rest of the season.

Managing Expectations

As I watched the inauguration of President Obama last week, I was struck with the contrast between the euphoria of the crowd and his measured and cautionary remarks.  Others have noticed this, too, and it took me some time to get around to writing this.

President Obama probably has, after FDR, the toughest set of circumstances facing him versus any other President.  Nevertheless, he has a 69% approval rating.  Given the difficult choices he'll have to make, he's bound to disappoint a good number of these people.

If you read his speech, you'll notice it to be relatively somber for a President coming in on such a wave of support.  And I think that's wise.  One of the biggest challenges for any leader is to manage expectations.

During good times, it's very easy to get overly optimistic.  And, during bad times, teams can get overly pessimistic.  A good leader can find the right balance to keep the team challenged and keep the company on a 'high-achievement' posture.

It's easy to understand the problems that can happen to when a management team gets overly optimistic.  This is very common among entrepreneurs as they tend to be optimists by nature.  Entrepreneurs visualize how to solve big problems and can't be deterred by the problems and issues.  Those 'why nots' are why other people haven't tried yet.  But, overly optimistic projections lead to disappointed investors and a lack of confidence in a team's ability to execute, even if they have actually done a great job.

However, sandbagging and setting low targets doesn't work either.  Whether through caution or pessimism, overly low expectations tends to lead to low achievement.  High jumpers don't clear the bar by feet, even if the bar is set low.  People tend to beat their targets, but it's hard to get a company to obliterate their targets.  And, the company's spending level tends to be set with an eye toward expected achievement.  If a company sets a $10M revenue goal, they'll spend commensurate with that.  However, if they could achieve $25M with the right plan, they won't have a chance of doing that with a spending plan that contemplated $10M in revenues.

The right balance that an executive should set is to 'under promise and over deliver'.  Targets should be set high enough to be challenging for the team, but not so high that they can't be met even with superhuman effort.  That's one reason why a CEO needs experience.  Without seeing this goal setting done well and poorly, a CEO won't have the ability to set the right goals for the organization.  And, if the expectations aren't set and managed well, the company is doomed to under deliver.

January 18, 2009

Out with the old wax

I love this photo today of Bush's wax figure being taken away at Madame Tussaud's Wax Museum, with Obama's figure looking on.  My countdown clock says just two more days.


January 15, 2009

Mass Customization

This video from TED discusses how mass customization delivers experiences (rather than a commodity, good, or service) and how important it is for an experience to be authentic.  This is a great video for any marketeer to watch.  This approach applies to any type of product or service.  It's critical to deliver something 'complete' that considers the consumers end-to-end experience.  This includes the ordering, installation, configuration, use, and support of the product or service.


Service Nation

I think that the election of Barack Obama has the potential be a real turning point for the country.  He's got a huge number of problems to address, and we all hope that he's successful in getting our economy back on solid footing, resolving the wars we are involved in, and re-establishing a positive image for the US in the world.

But, we also need to invest back in the US.  I am not talking about financial investment.  Some of us have the means of doing that, and some of us don't.  But, almost all of us has the potential to invest some time volunteering for a cause to make someone else's life better.  Doing this won't solve all of our domestic problems, but it would make a big difference.

We all honor the men and women who serve in our armed forces.  They are making a sacrifice, and perhaps the ultimate sacrifice, to help keep us safe.  I don't always agree when our politicians have deployed our troops, but I have the utmost respect and appreciation for the serice to our country that the members of military give to all of us.

We also need to honor volunteers who pitch in to help local charities that impact those worse off than us.  Even better, we should all dedicate some of our time to volunteer ourselves.  Almost all of us dedicate a pretty significant chunk of our time to recreation.  I won't get into a discussion of the realtive merits of various types of recreation, but why not dedicate 10% of your recreation time to a cause you support?  You may find it to be just as relaxing and much more rewarding.

Service Nation is an effort to turn Martin Luther King Day into a national day of service.  Not all of us can volunteer on that day, but why not spend some time that day to investigate and commit to a volunteer opportunity that fits your schedule and interests?  I've got commitments to several charities and causes.  Although it is sometimes difficult to juggle the time, it is always rewarding to do the work and see the impact it has on others.  Check out the voluteer opportunities on the Service Nation site or at my personal favorite, good2gether.  You'll find that volunteering is fun!

Also, see the head of Service Nation on last night's Colbert Report:

January 14, 2009

Boston-Power raises $55M

Boston-Power has been in the news quite a bit lately.  Today they announced that they raised $55M in new capital.  This comes on the heels of their announcement that HP is their first customer of laptop batteries.

The new capital will fuel the expansion of their manufacturing capacity.  It's incredible that they were able to raise money in this environment, but that's also a reflection on the quality of the opportunity.  They are playing a high-stakes game, and with $125M of capital raised since the start of the company, they are poised for a large win in a huge and critical market.

This is the third new year in a row where Boston-Power was able to start off with a successful financing.  A great way to get a new year underway!

January 13, 2009

The Industry Conference or the Cocktail Party

In the past few months, I've seen more of my over-40 friends and colleagues get active on Facebook.  At the same time, activity on LinkedIn still continues to be very high.  Many of my less-connected friends ask me "should I sign up for these?", "what's the difference?", and "isn't Facebook really for kids?"  So, if you wonder whether or not you should use these services, here's my take on the answers.

LinkedIn is like walking the halls of a huge industry conference.  It's aimed at business people, with most of the data structured around jobs you've held, education you have, and skills you have.  It's great for trying to hire people as you can easily search for people with certain jobs from certain companies and in certain geographies.  There are ways to recomend the work of others and industry groups to join.  The main purpose of LinkedIn is to expand your professional network.  The site makes it easy for you to leverage your existing contacts to make new ones.  And, if you join a networking group, it's easy to reach out to others in the group.  There is a very good search function that let's you identify people you want to get connected to.

Personal membership in LinkedIn is free, but they sell business memberships that are mostly aimed at recruiting.  I am a personal member, so I am not well versed in the business membership benefits.  If you are doing a lot of hiring, you should check it out.  One nice thing about LinkedIn is that despite having so many people in there, I receive almost no spam.  The messages I get are either from people who know me who want to connect with me on LinkedIn or from those who are leveraging a mutual connection of ours to get to know me.  I may or may not be interested in all of these requests, but none of them are a waste of time.  If you join LinkedIn, you should be ready to expand your network and to help others expand theirs.

There is some amount of social interaction on LinkedIn, but not much.  There is a way to ask questions of your network, and the content of those questions vary.  And, you can post your individual status so that others in your network can see what you're doing.

My analogy for LinkedIn is walking the halls of a big industry conference with your name badge on.  You interact with business contacts you know, and there are a lot of other people around.  You can get introduced to your friends' friends, and most people can see at least your name.  It's a pretty safe environment and very professional.

An example of how I used LinkedIn:  Let's say that I am working with a semiconductor company that wants to hire a new VP of Marketing in Dallas, TX.  It's very easy to search for all of the VPs of Marketing in the semiconductor industry that are in or near Dallas.  If there are names that come up that look interesting, I can quickly see how my network extends to this person.  If I don't know them directly, I can see if they are connected to one of my contacts, or to one of my contacts' contacts.  This indirect network expands quickly.  Currently, I have 1487 direct connections on LinkedIn.  The extended network of my contacts, their contacts, and their contacts' contacts is over 7.5M people.  So, that's a large database to mine when I want to make a new business contact.  Some may say that I am too promiscuous on LinkedIn!

If LinkedIn is the industry conference, Facebook is the cocktail party afterwards (which spills out into the city streets).  As you might know, Facebook started as a way for college students to get in touch, keep in touch with their former high school classmates, and maintain contact after college.  It is very social, and I am sure that the killer app that drove initial adoption was dating.

Facebook is all about people posting what they are doing, what they like doing, how they express themselves, and sharing all of that with their friends.  You can expand your friend network pretty easily, but I find that Facebook has more 'noise' than LinkedIn for business use.  There are still lots of students on Facebook, but more and more of us 'old folks' have been joining.  And, more of my industry contacts are active on Facebook.  My own set of Facebook 'friends' has family, friends, business contacts, high school students (my son and some of his friends), college students (from work I do in and around MIT and elsewhere), high school classmates, and more.  It would be scary if they all met one day!

The subject of the chatter on Facebook is much more like what you'd talk about at a cocktail party -- what are you doing, where are you going, what do you like (music, art, food), what's newsworthy, etc.  It's really easy to jump in and comment on anything that your friends are talking about.  But, you won't find many deep discussions.  There is a lot of photo sharing on Facebook, which is nice if you are keeping up with family and friends.

After playing around with Facebook on and off for the past few years, I've come back to it again recently.  As more of my friends and business contacts are on there, it's a nice way to stay connected.  There is more value than you think in saying "I'm on my way to Texas" and having some people I know in Texas say "Stop by for a drink!"  Or, saying that you don't feel well today and having many people you know wish you well.  I don't find it a substitute for being a friend, but it can make do in a pinch.

As I said, Facebook is like a cocktail party.  There is lots of chit chat, and you can definitely meet new people or just stick to your old friends.  There is probably a wilder side than what you have seen, but you can ignore it if you wish.  It's still a pretty safe environment as you can control who can communicate with you.  But, I still get more random invites that I would consider spam on Facebook than I do on LinkedIn.  Nevertheless, I haven't received anything that I would consider inappropriate or in poor taste.

I had a debate with a colleague of mine today about which one would win in the long-term -- LinkedIn or Facebook.  Quite honestly, I don't see one as a substitute for another.  Ideally, I'd like them to merge, but with a way for me to keep business and personal contacts separate.  That separation is important.  I don't see a need for me to keep my business background a secret from anyone, but I am sure that there are things in my Facebook profile that are best kept to just my friends and cocktail party buddies.

If you haven't joined either one, you are probably missing something.  I'm willing to bet that some of your friends and/or business contacts are already on there.

January 08, 2009

ART One Day Sale

The American Repertory Theatre in Cambridge is having an unprecedented one-day sale tomorrow, January 9, 2009 from 9 AM to 6 PM.

With this sale, you can purchase tickets for $25 each to the first week of any of the spring 2009 productions:

The Seagull by Anton Chekhov

Endgame by Samuel Beckett

Trojan Barbie (world premiere) by Christine Evans

Romance by David Mamet

You can buy tickets online, over the phone at 617-547-8300, or in person at 64 Brattle Street, Harvard Square, Cambridge, MA.

The $25 ticket is a great deal for world-class theater.  Ticket prices are normally anywhere from $39-79, depending on the show and seat location.  This is an opportunity you don't want to miss, and a great chance to get acquainted (or re-acquainted) with the ART.

Disclaimer: I am on the Advisory Board for the ART and have been a subscriber since 1982.  I think that even then the tickets were more than $25!

January 07, 2009

Let's see if Doc can really coach

Wow, the Celtics, with their 3 Hall of Famers and essentially the same team that stormed to the championship last year, are in an actual slump.  With tonight's loss to Houston, the Celtics have lost 6 out of their last 8 games.  And, they've lost to teams that are in the bottom of the league (Golden State, NY Knicks, Charlotte), and, tonight, a home game.  Any one or two of these losses wouldn't be much cause for concern.  Even last year's team lost three in a row at one point.

But, the lack of offense is getting to be too significant.  Tonight, they only scored 85 points and only 11 in the fourth quarter.  In most of their losses, they've had trouble getting into the 90s.  And, now this has happened too many times over the past 8 games.

Teams are more fired up to play the Celtics, and the team is facing fierce defense.  So, it's up to Doc Rivers to come up with ways of beating this.  The talent is there, as was proven last year.  So, they may need to mix up the rotation a bit or change some of the approach.  This is one of those moments where coaches earn their pay.

Before last season, many fans thought that Doc Rivers wasn't a very good coach.  Of course, he didn't have enough talent to work with.  Last year, Doc looked like a genius since the team had one of the most consistent seasons that any team ever had and won a championship.  I've generally been favorable about Doc, but now I want to see him step up.  Get the players to commit to doing something new to break this string.  The offense has to improve.  There's too much talent on the team to have so much trouble scoring for so long..

And, he has to hurry.  They play the very strong Cleveland Cavaliers on Friday in Cleveland.

As long as we're bailing...

CNN reports on the latest industry to request a government bailout.

I don't know which is funnier -- the fact that the porn industry is poking fun at the government by requesting the bailout or that anyone takes this as being anything close to serious.

I can't avoid the obvious pun about the government screwing up the porn industry with a bailout...

January 05, 2009

The diligence never stops

Reading about the SEC's many fruitless investigations of Madoff over 16 years has me thinking of due diligence this morning.  It's easy to criticize the SEC in hindsight for not finding anything.  Obviously, Madoff was a master at covering his tracks, making any diligence process difficult.  He also played off of reputation and trust to swindle his clients.  This probably worked on the SEC as well.  I'm guessing that they cut corners on the investigation because of who (they thought) Madoff was.

As an investor, I never stopped the due diligence process, even after making an investment.  Pre-investment, I would try to do 360 degrees of diligence, talking to anyone I could find who knew the people, market, or technology involved in a prospective new investment.  I would try to get them to meet first-hand with the company to get their direct impressions.  I would also talk to previous employers and investors from the founders' companies.  As is the case with anyone, no one gets 100% scores.  You have to weigh issues and risks with the potential upside.

People learn from their mistakes, and I tend to be a forgiving guy (one of my weaknesses, some may say).  I wasn't necessarily put off by a failure in a previous situation, but I wanted to learn as much about it as possible.  It's startling to hear the different perspectives that multiple people can have on the same situation.  On one company, I had one board member tell me that a key person was barely involved with the company while another said that this person was chiefly responsible for the company's success!  How do you know who to believe?

If you talk to enough people, you can form your own opinion.  If you weren't there yourself, you can be like an investigative reporter, digging up as many facts as possible and stitching the story together.  You can listen to your own instincts and see how they line up with what you've heard from others.  But, there are some things I'm not very forgiving on -- honesty and ethics.  If someone lied once, they'll certainly do it again.  That's an almost impossible habit to break.

I'm always amazed at the lack of diligence that some investors and entrepreneurs do.  I've seen some investors back entrepreneurs from failed companies without talking to any of the previous investors.  Maybe they wanted to keep the new deal to themselves, but is that worth the risk of missing out on the other investors' perspective?  And, very few entrepreneurs perform diligence on VCs.  Those investments are two-way partnerships.  If you have a choice of investors, shouldn't you do your homework on them?

As I mentioned before, I don't stop this process after investing.  If I am working with a CEO and I come across someone who knows them well, I'm going to ask a lot of questions.  This has bothered some people who thought I was 'going behind their back'.  But, I just want to continue to learn as much as possible about the people I am in business with.  I always put a much greater emphasis on my first-hand interactions because they are only colored by my own judgment, not someone else's, too.  However, if I can learn how to help a CEO be more effective by understanding a past situation they were in, it only helps all of us for me to take advantage of that.

Also, be very wary of someone who doesn't want their background to be an open book.  I've encouraged people checking my references to call anyone.  And, I don't feel I need to prep my references on what to say about me.  I've got nothing to hide and am happy to discuss any situation I've been involved with, including those that haven't worked out.  I'm guessing that Bernie Madoff didn't consider his fund to be an open book for the investigators.  He certainly controlled the information that anyone could find out, much to everyone's dismay.

January 04, 2009

Boston-Power is a Crunchies Finalist

I've written about Boston-Power quite a bit lately.  Their latest news is that they are a finalist for a Crunchie award.  Here's a description of the Crunchies:

In its second year, the Crunchies has quickly established itself as one of the tech industry’s most sought-after accolades – recognizing and celebrating the most compelling startups, internet and technology innovations of the year.  The Crunchies is co-hosted by among the most influential new media outlets. GigaOm, VentureBeat, Silicon Alley Insider, and TechCrunch.

If you are interested in voting for Boston-Power (or any of the other Crunchie finalists), you can do so here.  Voting closes on January 5th.

Oldies but really goodies

After taking quite a bit of time off from work and from posting, I'm back....I wanted to let 2008 go quietly into the night.  Now that we're into 2009, I'm back to being an optimist.  Happy New Year!

I don't write about my musical tastes.  If an artist is still alive, there's a pretty good chance I'm not a fan.  My tastes haven't changed much since college.  I realize that makes me an old man, but there's a lot of comfort in those classic rock tunes.

Today's Boston Globe had an article about the great music released in 1968 and whether 2008's music would stand the test of time as well.  The music business was different in 1968, and the country was going through major cultural shifts, partly fueled by innovative music and it's impact on the young generation.  I was only 7 in 1968, but as I grew older, I became a fan of most of the music listed in this article.  You can compare the 1968 list with the Globe's picks in 2008.

One big difference between the 1968 list and the 2008 list is the concept of the 'album' vs. the 'hit song.'  Very few of the 2008 CD's are really great albums, even if they have some great songs.  But, on the 1968 list, the quality seems very deep and consistent.  Again, this is a reflection of the change in the music business.  I remember 'album-oriented rock' stations near where I grew up (WCCC in Hartford, CT!).  That station wouldn't hesitate to play one-half of an album, or even a whole album all the way through.  This made the job easier for the DJ's, but also exposed the listeners to all the work of an artist rather than just the hits.  The lack of a CD or iPod where you could more easily select individual tracks led us to listen to album sides all the way through.

As I looked through the 1968 list, I realize that two of my favorite groups from that era didn't have anything on the list.  The Who were preparing Tommy for a 1969 release.  The Grateful Dead released Anthem of the Sun, probably mostly for their die-hard fans these days.  Also, Traffic's second album, "Traffic", is briefly mentioned in the article but was a very strong effort in its own right.

Well, that's enough musing from the memories of an old man...I hope my kids can look back on their favorite music in 40 years and feel the same way I do about 1968.

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