Monthly Archives: July 2008

To Find Good, Underrated People, De-Emphasize Popular Filters

People who earn the label “hidden gems” are hidden because they lie unturned after a popular, blunt filter is applied to a population. To find good, underrated people, de-emphasize popular filters.

If you want to find a woman to date, try not to filter in favor of big breasts, for example, since this is a popular filter. People watch MTV, demand goes up, supply goes down — competition for big breasts in the real world is fierce. And this really isn’t that good a filter, anyway. Physical beauty can take many forms. Cultivate an attraction (yes, I do think there’s some choice) in a less popular physical feature. For women, an analog is height — figure out a way to like short men and you’ll trade up big time on other important factors like personality.

If you want to hire someone for your company, try not to filter in favor of an education credential. It reflects a person at age 17 and is the most popular mass filter of other companies, driving up the price to hire someone with a Berkeley degree. As Arnold Kling has said, “When you are a start-up, you need to find people who are better than their credentials. The last thing you can afford to do is pay a premium for credentials.” Spot talent in other ways. And fully recognize the importance of drive — I have a friend who shuns hiring Harvard MBAs because of their “coasting attitude for the rest of life.” In other words, they don’t have to prove anything to anybody and will always be able to pull down a six figure salary from somewhere if they need to. This is exactly what you don’t want in an employee.

If you want to find a smart person who has time to be your friend, try to find a bad self-promoter. The popular filter, at least in business, is in favor of charismatic personalities and clever marketers. Find the brilliant mind who’s a so-so marketer and revel in her availability.

Your additions?

Don’t Give Up, Don’t Ever Give Up

That’s the motto of the Jimmy V Foundation for Cancer Research, as announced by legendary basketball coach Jimmy Valvano in his famous ESPY Awards speech in 1993 (he died of cancer soon after the speech).

I came upon that phrase — don’t give up, don’t ever give up — during my trip to Alaska last week. I spent all last week on the Kenai Peninsula in Alaska where I hiked, saw some glaciers, fished for halibut, watched bears fish for salmon, and generally continued my travel trend of enjoying nature / the outdoors and avoiding cities.

Virtually everywhere in Alaska there was a sign reminding us mortal humans that we were in “bear country.” The signs presented various scenarios. If you happen upon a black bear, play dead. A brown bear, act big and fierce. If you happen upon a predatory bear of either color, and it attacks, fight back. Fight back, the sign said, and don’t give up.

In Homer, Alaska, at the Pratt Museum, there was an exhibit on sailors who died at sea. It showed how long the average person can live if alone at sea. For example, one who treads water quickly lives longer than one who swims slowly. In any scenario, the will to stay alive and not fall asleep / go unconscious can make the difference between life and death.

My last sighting of this phrase is from a hotel room in Topeka, Kansas, where I was the week before last. There was a placard about what to do if there is a fire. It had the evacuation route and then some instructions if the fire were right outside my door. Put a wet towel under the door, it said, call for help, and don’t give up.

It might seem funny to have to remind people not to give up. But I definitely believe it. Whether in normal situations or dire ones, people can underestimate their own willpower.

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Wisdom from John Steinbeck

Some of my favorite quotes from John Steinbeck’s book Travels with Charley below.

On how to attract help:

I knew long ago and rediscovered that the best way to attract attention, help, and conversation is to be lost. A man who seeing his mother starving to death on a path kicks her in the stomach to clear the way, will cheerfully devote several hours of his time giving wrong directions to a total stranger who claims to be lost.

On the beauty of San Francisco:

San Francisco put on a show for me. I saw her across the bay, from the great road that bypasses Sausalito and enters the Golden Gate Bridge. The afternoon sun painted her white and gold — rising on her hills like a noble city in a happy dream. A city on hills has it over flat-land places. New York makes its own hills with craning buildings, but this gold and white acropolis rising wave on wave against the blue of the Pacific sky was a stunning thing, a painted thing like a picture of a medieval Italian city which can never have existed. I stopped in a parking place to look at her and the necklace bridge over the entrance from the sea that led to her. Over the green higher hills to the south, the evening fog rolled like herds of sheep coming to cote in the golden city. I’ve never seen her more lovely…Then I crossed the great arch hung from filaments and I was in the city I knew so well. It remained the City I remembered, so confident of its greatness that it can afford to be kind.

On what the rich and stupid do:

To cultivate an opposition to change is the currency of the rich and stupid.

On following advice:

People rarely take action on advice of others unless they were going to do it anyway.

On dog lovers (I second the thought on baby-talk):

I yield to no one by distaste for the self-styled dog-lover, the kind who heaps up his frustrations and makes a dog carry them around. Such a dog-lover talks baby talk to mature and thoughtful animals, and attributes his own sloppy characteristics to them until the dog becomes in his mind an alter ego. Such people, it seems to me, in what they imagine to be kindness, are capable of inflicting long and lasting tortures on an animal, denying it any of its natural desires and fulfillments until a dog of weak character breaks down and becomes the fat, asthmatic, befurred bundle of neuroses.

On virtue’s invisibility:

We value virtue but do not discuss it. The honest bookkeeper, the faithful wife, the earnest scholar gets little of our attention compared to the embezzler, the tramp, the cheat.”

Creative Destruction in Newspapers

Hardly a day goes by without a stark reminder of the the newspaper industry’s malaise. Today, to pick just one example, the Los Angeles Times announced it will no longer print a separate book review section on Sundays.

Predictably, the journalistic community responded with dismay. We’ve seen this movie before. Several past LAT book editors wrote a letter of protest in which they claimed this decision is a "blunder" which will lead to more readers canceling their subscriptions and that eliminating a stand-alone book review section is an "insult" to "cultural ambitions of the city."

Don’t these people get it? Newspapers are dying. Content is being unbundled. Cultural ambitions of cities are no longer channeled by the local newspaper. The world is changing. Yet, a considerable number of executives in this industry (and newspaper readers over age 60 in general) believe that newspapers in their current form must be saved — including a book review section alongside city crime alongside reporting from Iraq alongside Lakers and Dodgers news. Not so.

No one questions the societal need for high quality journalism. But — and this is key — there is no inextricable link between high quality journalism and a print newspaper covering a million topics.

My popular belief on all this is that the most promising category is "hyperlocal" news / analysis / coverage. My unpopular belief is that print still has a future in a big way, just not for metro daily newspapers.

Jeff Jarvis at BuzzMachine is the most intelligent blogger on reinventing journalism. I read him daily.

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De-Stress Tip: Playing Out the Worst Case Scenario

Here’s something I do which needlessly raises my stress: I too often ponder the worst case scenario after a situation is out of my control.

For example, I email someone important, and until I’ve heard back from him, I think about the worst case (“He hated it, forwarded it to his three VIP buds and ridiculed me”) or (“He’s not going to respond because he thought the idea was terrible”). This is not helpful since I’ve already sent the email.

While sometimes thinking through the worst case scenario can be helpful in getting us to do things we’d otherwise avoid — what’s the worst thing that can happen by doing karaoke in a club? I get a little embarrassed? I’ll do it! — it’s only helpful before action is taken.

I guess this is part of the larger idea of living in the present. We ought not obsess about the past nor worry excessively about the future. (There’s a difference between prudent planning for the future and counterproductive worrying; just like there’s a difference between learning from the past and “obsessing” about it.) In my email example above, if the worst-case scenario were to happen, best to deal with it then, in that moment.

The Best Phone Conversations Happen When Both Are in a Similar Physical Environment

If you travel a lot you tend to:

  • Make a lot of phone calls while on the road / in airports / on-the-go.
  • Cherish any stationary time you do have at your desk as an opportunity to undergo some focused, uninterrupted work.

I’ve noticed a tension that arises when I’m traveling and call someone who’s at their desk, or vice-versa. The person driving tends to be more chatty realizing that there’s not much else he could be doing while on the road. Meanwhile, the other person, at his desk, gets anxious about spending precious desk time — when he can be most effective on his computer or talking to office mates — on a phone call.

To wit, my theory of the day: The best phone conversations between two people of equal status happen when both are in a similar physical environment with equal productivity potential.

Let European / Asian Airlines Fly U.S. Domestic Routes

Earlier this month, United Airlines spammed its customers and urged us to ask Congress to reign in oil speculators, whatever that means.

If Americans are going to get together to ask Congress to do something about the dismal state of domestic airlines, here’s a better plan: Urge Congress to take the EU-US Open Skies Agreement one step further. Let’s allow any European or Asian airline fly any U.S. domestic route.

The Open Skies Agreement, which just went into effect, allows any U.S. or European carrier to fly from any city in the U.S. to any city in Europe. This ended exclusive lockholds on lucrative routes to London Heathrow, among others. Right away Delta and US Air and Singapore Air among others started serving Heathrow, creating more competition (and thus lower prices).

Imagine what would happen if well-run European or Asian airlines with a younger fleet (such as the Lufthansa Group which includes their subsidiaries like Swiss Air) could start flying domestic U.S. flights. They would probably focus on longer haul domestic routes and could immediately attack the weak U.S. carriers and their hubs (US Air in Philly, United in Denver, and probably Delta’s secondary hub in LAX which has been a disaster).

I’m not optimistic the protectionist winds in Washington would allow for an open market in U.S. domestic routes, but certainly if American citizens are going to try to do something on the lobbying front to improve airline travel here at home railing against oil speculation isn’t the answer. Encouraging Congress to allow the better-run European and Asian airlines to compete probably is.

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The one bright spot among U.S. carriers remains Southwest Airlines which announced a remarkable 15% increase in profit last quarter. Here’s an analysis of Southwest’s new boarding policy. To me it signals a renewed commitment to business travelers who are willing to pay to get a 1-15 boarding number. Consider this plus their re-modeling of all gate seating areas (each gate equipped with big fluffy chairs and more power outlets than you know what to do with) and it’s clear that Southwest will start winning over business travelers on longer routes, not just budget-conscious, short haul flyers.

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I’ve now flown the new airline Virgin America several times between SF – NY, LA – NY, and SF – D.C., and have had a very pleasant experience. They offer low prices with professional staff and good in-flight amenities. But it’s hard for me to see how they’re going to maintain the low prices in the long run (I’m assuming now they’re loss leaders). I would expect Virgin America to follow the path of Jet Blue, though I’m not familiar with their oil / fuel hedge situation so maybe I’ll be proven wrong. Still, adding hip window dressing like JetBlue or the failed Ted or Song experiments of United and American without fundamentally changing the business model (VA operates a hub at SFO and competes on the cutthroat coastal routes) doesn’t strike me as a winning formula to an industry in need of innovation.

Does Travel Make You Happier?

Tyler Cowen via Gretchen Rubin:

Travel is an interesting issue. It makes people deeper, and makes their internal mental stream much richer, but I’m not sure it ever makes them *happier* per se. It can be a lot of hard work and also some frustration. Still it is worth doing as much as you can.

As I’ve said before, for me, all the cliches about travel are true. It really does broaden you.

How Many Times Have You Called?

Jeff Parker wrote a "braintrust" essay in my book entitled, Life is a sales call. I believe sales skills map very well to life in general. Working a phone or making in-person pitches teaches numerous lessons. Most notably, in my experience, is that someone may not return your call the first, second, third, or fourth time, but the fifth time you call it happens that they are, in fact, quite interested in your product.

The lesson is basic, but like so many "basic" life lessons, hard to absorb if not learned first-hand: be persistent and keep following up until you hear a definitive "no" (and then just follow up less frequently).

The past few weeks I’ve talked different people who are trying to obtain information / move something forward. I ask, "Did you call Jane?" The answer, "Yep, I called, haven’t heard back." Remarkably, when I probe, they’ve concluded that one non-callback means non-interest.

The same goes with email. Be persistent. Follow up every few days, try different approaches, change your messaging. My sense is if you only followed up once, you probably didn’t care much about the interaction anyway, and if that’s the case, why try in the first place?

Related Post: Two Quick Stories About Persistence

Can Making Money Be the Main Driver for Entrepreneurs?

Last year I sat in on a speech by an entrepreneur friend who told the young people in the room, "Money can be the main motivation to start a business." I admired that he said this. Most entrepreneurial spiels obsess about the need to have "passion" about the mission of the business — they say money isn’t enough.

So: can making money be the prime motivator when starting a business?

My take is that in the short-term (0-2 years after founding): Yes. In the long term: it’s not enough and a genuine passion for what the business is doing and the customers it’s serving is a necessary additive.

If your business survives until the long-term, generating the passion shouldn’t be hard. If you start a trash pick-up service, maybe at first you see it as just a cash cow business. After all, who can get fired up about waste management? But eventually, as the business grows, and you start to serve tens of thousands of customers, you can get passionate about the idea of impact on a large scale.

Impact is the entrepreneur’s drug of choice and if a company gets to a point where it is impacting a significant number of people I would argue any founder / executive can find a way to become genuniely excited about the mission above and beyond simply making money (which is an acceptable if not ideal driver for the founders at the outset).

(thanks to Stan James for helping brainstorm this post)