Saturday, January 23, 2010

It won’t be long…

Christmas decorations go up earlier every year in the US as retailers try to get a jump on holiday shoppers.

So, too, with Carnivale in Maastricht.

The pre-Lent celebration gets going in early February, but a few of the colorful decorations have already started to sneak into shop windows throughout the Wyck.  It’s a nice splash of color in the misty rains and early evenings.  The butcher shop (shown) has the best display so far.

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I took the train north to Amsterdam on Tuesday to visit my accountants, a couple of hours journey each way.  I always enjoy the trip, stretches of fields and waterways punctuated by now-familiar villages and cities.   The rectangular geometry of water-filled trenches bordering fields and houses grids the landscape everywhere: it reminds me of putting in the French Drains back in Seattle years ago.

We were digging a hole for my son’s basketball pole when it suddenly filled with water; I thought we’d hit a pipe.  We subsequently discovered the water table had raised, and that the home’s crawlspace and foundations were submerged.  It was caused by an uphill neighbor clearing trees from their back yard (Why move to the Pacific Northwest if you don’t like trees?).

The Dutch might have figured it out, I had to use trial and error.  Trenching and draining never seemed to solve it, despite several refinements. We finally had to put in a sump pump, it still whirrs several times a day to clear the cistern.

DSC09922 It’s not the best of time to visit Amsterdam.  The city gets wet and drab in winter,  everyone bundled in black overcoats and grey scarves.  There was ice on the rivers and the Centraal Station had a biting wind blowing through the long tunnel of platforms.

DSC09920 DSC09925

Still, I like walking the canals and the joining the bustle of the city.  It’s easy to imagine the warmer weather, budding trees, and canalside cafes  that will arrive in a couple of months.

The days are already starting to lengthen and the ice has thawed out of the cobblestones in the South.  The bands will soon take to the streets; the fraternal icons will again be hoisted up lamposts.  Along the Maas, it’s almost time for Carnivale and I agree with the shopkeepers, it can’t come soon enough.

Friday, January 22, 2010

A little overprotective?

Wandering Norfolk, I was struck by the number of warning and advisory signs, posted everywhere.  Uncommon in the Netherlands, they are usually only meant to prevent liability in the US.  Throughout Britain, though, they take on the tone of a cautious parent.

The British describe their national values as “kindness, politeness, and fair play”, sometimes to an extent that confounds Americans.  (“Irony” is also important, but, as a source of endless misunderstandings, that’s another topic…)  For more detail, I’m reading Kate Fox’s “Watching the English”, in which she dissects the rules that she believes to govern British behavior (below).

Fox 1

It led me to wonder whether the Values, in particular, could be extended to include the outward signs of helpfulness and giving notice that the signs seem to represent?

Another thought comes from reading Peter Clarke’s “Keynes”, in which he discusses the economist’s thesis on how to make decisions. 

Social history is distilled into rules after the fact, but individual experiences are more limited and varied.  In the absence of rules, decisions must be based on expectation, the probability that desired consequences will result from chosen actions.  There is always a balance between obeying social rules and following individual judgment (the decision to adhere to the posted speed limit in specific conditions, for example).

So, I wonder whether a country with a long social history might tend towards having more rules than a younger country, and foster a cultural temperament that gives more weight to rules over experience in making decisions?

I probably should just enjoy the display without thinking about it too deeply

And take their advice.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Planting the flag; defining a brand

Stone Bridge 1 It’s been a bit of an embarrassment to have a business going for six months, yet not having time to establish the brand.

Part of the issue has been the way that the consulting business crowds out the time to develop the product / service business.  The other part has been trying to get a clear view of what I am in business to do.  What is the purpose, product, value of my business concept; what is in- and out- of scope for its activities?

It takes a big, uninterrupted think to sort these qualities out, and time has been at a premium for months.

It also takes a willingness to move the first shovel of dirt, to make a start at the foundations even if the construction won’t be complete at the first sitting.

DSC00507 I’ve had some good consultation with friends over the holidays and by email since, and felt determined to make a stab at it.  The company web site is on the Microsoft Small Business hosted site, free for the first year, good service and reliability, but just awful website building tools.  I struggled through with it today for six, eight hours until I got a credible draft finished.  It’s aesthetically unappealing (the tool’s color palette is based on olive and purple), but the content is accurate and organized.

Still work to do, the appearance needs help, the continuity of the look across pages is weak, I’m lacking consistent linkage to social networking sites, and I want to build in some dynamic content.

Nonetheless, it’s a good start, and exciting to finally have a  public presence.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Moving the (million $) mountain

mountains Arrived back in Maastricht on Monday, but immediately plunged into a week of work, prioritizing a few big jobs ahead of the social networks.  It’s paid some dividends, a couple of big jobs are done.

An elephant was the “Pitch and Prospectus” to raise money for a client. It’s the final push to get their product to market, and a clear and compelling presentation of the business prospects and needs is crucial.  They’ve agreed on the “80% draft”, a version that’s good enough for others to critique it, and I’ve transitioned from writing, illustrating, and formatting to making calls and sending e-mails to initiate the outside reviews among some VC friends.  We’ll see if we have a fundable proposition by next week.

I remember a business class where the instructor asked whether we would take his “Million Dollar Deal”.  Suppose he asked for a year of loyal servitude: on call 24/7, ready do whatever he needed (nothing illegal,  but hard work).  At the end of the year, he would pay out 1 million dollars.  Would you take it?

Absolutley.  He argued that it was a bad bargain: health, family, friendships, outside interests would all suffer.  But it’s a million dollars! Think, for one moment, of the real costs.  But…but…

I’m feeling a bit like that now: there are lots of payoffs implicit in getting the client’s company funded, completed, and exited.  But my real costs are also very high.  So, turning back to the New Year’s touchstone: keep it all in perspective, and life in balance.

And, as Felix Dennis notes, even a million dollars may only make people “comfortably poor” these days. 

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Views along the Norfolk coast

I spent the weekend recharging along the coast north off Great Yarmouth, east of the Norfolk Broads.  It’s both bleak and embracing in winter. Gunmetal blue roads reflect a clear sky, muddy waves stroke a deserted beach, spidery branches burst from ivy-covered tree trunks.  It’s a quiet spot to listen to the wind, to curl up with a beer in the pub, and to make sense of the crowded week just past.

DSC09835 Stitch

DSC09792 Stitch