Saturday, October 17, 2009

Don’t hate the PowerPointers

bergenmccarthy In the twenty-odd years since it’s creation, PowerPoint backdrops have become every speaker’s Charlie McCarthy.

Intended to give life and structure to status updates and sales pitches, the slide deck has, instead, become a wooden accompaniment to listless recitations in meeting rooms and lecture halls.  The dreadful examples filling SlideShare are enough to make me yearn for a return to acetates.

Many commentators blame the tool, but it can clearly be tamed.  My B-school gave us a half-day’s training with a whiz from McKinsey who taught us to storyboard, use action-titles, and adopt balanced color and graphics. Clif Atkinson makes similar arguments in Beyond Bullet Points tutorials.  The result better  illustrates a talk instead of simply repeating it.

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Alternatively, Saachi & Saachi recommend bold graphics and high-contrast messaging.  These grab attention, but I’ve found that they require perfect timing an coordination to be effective.  Also, overused, they get tiresome fast.

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And they still don’t solve the fundamental problem of the the way that speakers interact with their slides.

Instead, return to Edgar Bergan’s interactions with Charlie.  The interaction is a dialog, straight man vs witty rejoinder, lead-in vs. double entendre.  The best speakers have a similar relationship to their background material. It doesn’t just support the story, it joins them in the narrative of telling it.

Seth Godin has few words or animations in his slides, but uses them as an ongoing commentary on his ideas.  Famously, Steve Jobs uses his slides as tease and tells, foreshadowing then revealing the reality behind his spoken reflections.  There’s a real rapport between the men and the medium.

Creative or gifted amateurs can sometimes do almost as well or, failing that, at least provide some entertainment in trying.  Pecha Kutcha night, 20 slides, 20 seconds each, returns to Maastricht this Tuesday evening.  A dozen presenters will try their luck: it’s a bit of a poetry slam in  execution, but makes for a fun evening. 

…and you can learn a lot about how to give a presentation watching people tell their stories, accompanied by a tight set of images.

Friday, October 16, 2009

Channeling Seth Godin

SethGodin-2007 If you’re a small, unknown company with a new product, how do you connect with customers?  How can they come to know, like, and trust you when they’ve never heard of you; why should they choose you over established competitors?

As I build my own business and counsel my clients, this question looms large.

Seth Godin is a new media marketing evangelist with intriguing answers.  as I watch his presentations and listen to his interviews, I’ve taken away three ideas that really resonate.

  1. Find a niche small enough for you to be the best.

What group of people would think of you as their first, best, and natural solution when they have a problem?  Who shares your interests and passions; who forms a natural community of people committed, in the same way that you are, to your vision of change?

The adventuresome and the forgotten are a natural constituency, people who find believe that their problems are not a mainstream concern. 

      2.    Find a way to stand out.

The way to be known is to be demonstrably the best, to be unconventional, to be able to upset the established order of things.  I have always preferred to compete on understanding the problem, creating solutions that perform, and being first to the market.

If you can keep a sense of energy, style. and fun, while avoiding taking yourself too seriously, I think it’s a plus (see Richard Branson: quite mad, but quite effective).

      3.   Form a tribe.

Find a way to gather people together who are dissatisfied with the way things are and who are as committed to change as you are.  Be willing to provide a forum, bring them together, and to lead a movement.

Old media was about grabbing and holding people’s attention while hitting them repeatedly with the value proposition.  But Godin suggests that providing a forum to connect people is a better approach: they will find you and, if you solve their problem, their word of mouth will draw in others. (This was also the strategy of Marshall Ganz, who created Obama’s affinity strategy for organizing volunteers)

Seth_Godin 2 I’m a small company; my best client has four people.  There isn’t money or time for either of us to follow a traditional marketing plan.  But what each of us needs is a core of committed,well-served customers with focused needs that we can solve better than anyone. 

Putting that principal into practice has absorbed a lot of my reflective time and discussion the past few weeks.

Progress comes from doing small experiments to try out promising ideas, then measuring the results and adapting to the opportunities (or cutting the losses).  So, I’ve created a couple of well-defined interest groups in social media centers. Interestingly, people have spontaneously come to join.

I’m not sure how you would apply it to, say, running a flower shop, but I do like the way it shapes finding constructive approaches to connecting our solutions to customers.  And it actually seems to have some validity in practice.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Noch zomer noch winter

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Fall is becoming a mix of seasons, not quite summer, not yet winter.  The trees are still largely green and leafy, there are occasional days of sunshine and t-shirt temperatures.

At the same time, the clouds are low and threatening, the wind blows cold, and the leaves swirl around my ankles as I walk the paths.  Definitely a taste of winter threatening summer.

Herfst.

The riders are better prepared than the trees: bundled against the weather like dark shadows of Michelin Men.

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I’ve broken out the gloves and earmuffs, experimenting with combinations of warmth ahead of the serious weather. So far, the Locomoteif is shouldering through the mud and wind like a champ; I’m building up some endurance against the challenges to come.

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Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Now from the global annex…

When I founded my little Dutch company, I had visions of becoming a high-tech remote patient monitoring software development lab. Something like this:

jurassic-park-cm5tThe reality isn’t quite there yet. especially since the flashy mobile laptop died. I cobbled together a replacement system out of spare parts and a couple of components from MediaMart, stacked it up at the back of the apartment, and was, well, back in business.

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I suppose that all great ideas start this way: Medtronic (left) and HP (right) are two famous examples.

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Since there is no way to lift my whole temporary setup to the loft where the Global Command Center is located, the Annex location has to suffice for now. The faux-Turkish decor and everything-in-reach filing system is the perfect ambience for developing software, talking on Skype, and writing proposals. And the motivation…just to think of the day when I look back with a smile and remember how it all started from this…

The worst is when I put a hand on the side of the table to get up and flip the whole thing onto the floor. I’m sure that there is an appropriate Dutch phrase to sigh, invoking tulips and bicycles…

Monday, October 12, 2009

Transitioning from the expat contract

DSC08247 Okay, now that I’ve done it, I have to admit that I underestimated the difference.  I think it’s worth passing on: this reflection is “advice from lessons learned”, not meant to be a discouraging grumble.

At the outset, I had assumed that 75% of what I needed to transition to full-expat status in  the Netherlands was already done.  Cut off a few services, transfer a few agreements, and the work was complete.

In reality, I’d say that only 25% was done. The majority remained to be discovered only by doing it.

Looking back, the difference came from at least four different causes.

The first was Hidden Rules.  More was going on behind the scenes than I knew to establish my residency and working life here.  Health insurance is a good example: as a knowledge worker, I was able to use a (rare) exemption that kept me from having to buy a local policy.  As a self-employed expat, I needed to take full responsibility for finding and obtaining health insurance, and for justifying why I didn’t have it up to this point.  In this instance, as in many others, I’ve had to track down legacy paper trails to provide supplemental documentation. 

Allow a half-day per week for paperwork, applications, visits to offices, and requesting documents.

Then there are Hidden Costs.  As an example, realtors in Maastricht are paid a month’s rent for their services in helping locate an apartment.  This can run over 1000 euro, in addition to the two-month’s rent required for a security deposit. Even a simple contract reassignment can run 200 euros. Application fees and deposits for permits and services are routinely 100-300 euros. 

I kept a 5000 euro buffer against personal startup costs, and it wasn’t unreasonable.

A surprising number of things needed to be replaced, even though I downscaled where I could.  Trading the car for a bike and train pass was obvious, but credit cards and phone service also took weeks, not days, to set up.  There were a number of tax consultations to get the new payroll withholding right,  and endless e-mail contacts that had to be redirected away from the corporate address.

Allow an evening a week for the first few months to search out and reconnect the stray details of the old life that need to be attached to the new one.

Finally, there is the loss of on-call professional assistance.  These days, when there’s a question about visas, banking, or health care, I plunge into the appropriate offices, take a number, and work things through: hours in line instead of minutes on the phone.  Translation  is a big issue, I can read Dutch well enough to understand most of the notices but still set aside “mail-call” time with my bookkeeper to check my understanding.

Planning, patience, and methodical courage is all that will save you.

And, a final warning: I still don’t think I can calculate the full impact of losing exchange-rate protection and hypothetical-tax compensation.  I’ll just have to see how it plays out over the coming year.

DSC08248 I don’t think that this is unusual or atypical: three months after cutting the cord, there’s probably still a full day’s worth of time each week spent on overhead.  I really do expect it to diminish as I get settled, but if you’re moving off-contract, it’s all worth factoring in.

Today I needed to ship my computer back to the US for repairs.  So, research the best shipper, discover DHL charges 77 euro for an insured 2-day delivery vs. 5-day at 110 euro for FedEx or TNT.  Go buy a box, wrong size, second trip.  Bubble wrap - the postkantoor is out of it, so walk across town to the main post office.  Print and complete all necessary paperwork for customs and for the warranty repair  Be home for DHL to pick up package.  Total: 3 hours of an 8-hour workday (non-billable).

And, yes, it’s all (still) worth it: ‘good to be here and satisfaction from building and paddling my own ship.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Spinning the plates

Doctor Anonymous: March 2008‘back in the Netherlands after a good trip to Chicago.  Not without incident, but productive overall.

The work with the new company went well: they have made great progress on their device, there is a clear path to regulatory approval and a clinical study, and the investment required to get to market seems clear.  I’ve got a lot of confidence that they are on the right track.

My contribution seems equally clear: three major tasks to be done in the next quarter, a few minor ones.  We renewed the consulting contract, had some excellent conversations with the Board, and had a bit of encouraging third-party interest.

Still, it was an intense and tiring week, and I was pretty well done in by the time I arrived back in Amsterdam on Saturday, 6 am.  You could tell by the way I rode the train to Heerlen instead of Maastricht, if nothing else.

My computer suffered a breakdown on he last day, necessitating a night in Sony’s Backstage repair facility.  The diagnosis was “Hard Disk Crash, unrecoverable, probably a manufacturing defect.”  Lovely. I grabbed a half-terabyte removable drive and backed off the User partition before they reformatted (for which they charged $150), so I do have a current backup.  Thus, my problems did not become the client’s problems: the pitch slides were delivered as promised on a backup machine.

Still, there was an element of plate spinning to all of it.  I used to love watching these jugglers on TV when I was little: they could get dozens of plates going before some would start to fall.  There is, similarly, always the temptation to think I can keep one more task in the air, gracefully.  Most likely, there’s a limit.

So, I’ve reached out to establish my first subcontract, and I let go of a few tasks that I might have taken on myself in more ambitious times.  I deliberately took time to decide what not to do to get the computer fixed, shipping from the Netherlands rather than asking the client to ship from the US.  A backup system is assembled from spare components to keep me going for the next month. I’ve scheduled a planning day before I start the three new subprojects, and a day to meet with a marketing consultant.  Any day now, the response from the IND should arrive; I’m looking at a bunch of potential new apartments.

It still doesn’t feel easy, but I am filling the days more productively than I have in a year or so.

On the downside, there’s still an acute sense of having a slim margin for error and no net. It’s a lot more work than expected to set up home and shop in a new country, despite downsizing a lot to keep things simple and costs down.

Reversing John Lennon’s song, I hum ‘beneath me, only sky’ as I bike hither and yon.

On balance, though, no complaints, except for not having a dozen more hours to each day and twice the cash flow every month.  Every entrepreneur’s lament, I’m sure…