Saturday, October 22, 2011

We are the 1%

I visited San Francisco a week ago for a mixture of business and pleasure:  a few friends had asked if I would consider joining a new business venture and my son was completing his training leading to his deployment to Afghanistan.  It was an enjoyable visit in all regards, with time for good meals, serious conversations, and a nice mental stretch in a great city.

There was even time available to visit the ‘people’s park’ of the Occupy Wall Street movement down by the ferry terminal.  Which, reflecting on the 1%, inevitably got me thinking…

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The Small Business Administration reports that there are 6 million businesses registered in the United States: about 600,000 are formed each year and about 540,000 die.  The difference, 60,000 successful businesses, represents 1% of the total number of employers.  Odds are long against any new business succeeding: I believe that funding, talent, commitment, persistence, and focus are key elements that determine success. 

Since joining the ranks of entrepreneurs three years ago, I’ve wondered about how to increase the 1% odds in my favor.  On the one hand, hard work on a single idea is crucial: making the most of every opportunity and accomplishing as much as possible each day.  On the other, I mitigate risk by spreading myself across several different opportunities, diversified roles, products, and geographies that make up a varied portfolio of self-investments.  

AT, the new SF business, is an example of going broader rather than deeper.  It’s made up of people that I know well, coming together 'around an idea that makes great “back-of’ the-envelope” economic sense.  Everyone is good at what they do and respects what the others contribute.  The early work is funded; the conversations are generative.  It feels like a winner.

Nothing in my broad, early portfolio of five ventures takes a lot of my time or resources, so I can play my part in all of them within a day each week and wait see what develops.  Then, when one hits, I’ve doubled down fast and hard to push that success ahead.  Two ventures currently demand that level of effort, and both are responding wonderfully.

One day I want to model whether I’m reducing or increasing my overall risk with this strategy – it would be unfortunate if I am making more work and increasing my meltdown potential.  It already makes for very full days (and weekends), but has the virtue of keeping focus on my most productive ventures. 

I’ve also been able to claim salary as things ramp up, based on the contribution of prior sweat equity during the embryonic portfolio stage.  Hopefully, the broad strategy also pays off with at least one large equity exit, sometime soon.

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The United States has 1.6 million active servicepeople, 5.1 per thousand, suggesting that around 1% of families have sons and daughters in the military. Ours has no military tradition, so it’s been a learning experience since ‘Liam joined the Air Force three years ago.  Karen and I are both proud of what he does as a surveillance specialist, yet worried about the risks he takes as an active combat participant.

I’m still reconciling the contradictory impulses, conversations with family and friends elicit a similar mix of concerned patriotism.  Discussing it, there’s not the sense of a moral calling so much as a task that needs doing with reluctantly good reasons for doing it.

Still, we all are delighted that he is excelling in a job that he enjoys so much, and it was wonderful to see him before he goes.

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Occupy Wall Street makes much of the struggle between the 99% and the 1%.   I’m sympathetic to their cause: the Tea Party has been a discouraging mix of selfishness, short-sightedness, and intolerance, and I’ve longed for a counterweight.  Near the Federal Reserve Bank in San Francisco, I found the local encampment (staked out by a large group of police), and stopped in to see what it was all about.

Unfortunately, this group was completely incoherent.  More street fair than political statement, the signs railed against oil, government, money, the Fed, global trade, Wall Street, school cuts, banks, and the media.  It made me realize how broad the problems are, how frustrated people get, but didn’t suggest that the opposition has found cohesion, direction, or goals.  Right-wing talkers sneer at the protesters lack of unity and length of hair, and, from what I saw, they do make easy targets.

But there is underlying truth.  I’ve been reading Jeffrey Sachs book, The Price of Civilization, and the issues are clear and well-understood (and nicely enumerated by the Financial Times in their review):  Stagnant wages, diminished savings, rising inequality, and declining health and social program effectiveness, exacerbated by the pernicious view that “government is the problem”, mismanaged  globalisation of labor, and the corrupting influence of big business and big money on politics and media.   An accurate and coherent description of the problem could lead to constructive discussion of solutions. 

But this is not the group that can carry that banner.  A pity.

Friday, October 21, 2011

In the dumps - Hotwire specials

Yours is 2I travel a lot for business, a lot for fun: a lot of driving and overnight stays.  Although it’s nice to upgrade for a special occasion or a unique place, most of the time I figure that I’m not spending much time in the hotel room, so look for someplace with a good location and a good price.

Despite the “We’ll match any price” claims of individual hotel chains, I generally go through an aggregator, Orbitz (if I can link up a room to a flight) or Booking.com.  The latter site has always given me a good room and a competitive price and, most importantly, has bailed me out with a new room if the hotel made a mistake with the booking.

In the US, I sometimes go for deep discounts through Expedia or Hotwire.  And there the trouble starts.

A recent visit to Sacramento: Hotwire offers a great rate at the DoubleTree Point West Way.  On arrival, the desk clerk hands us a room in the Folsom Wing (its real name!), reserved for recruits on their way to basic training at a nearby air base.  Beds are stained, carpets are dirty, furniture is stripped down, the door opens the wrong way.  Yours isOne bad night and two stiff conversations with the manager and we broke out of prison to the regular wing. Hilton refuses to give credit for the stay.

A recent rental from Hertz, another 1/3 discount through Hotwire for Sacramento airport pickup.  First, there’s the hassle of getting the car at the price I paid.  No, I don’t want gas, no I don’t want insurance, no, I don’t want a bigger car:  okay, that’s expected.  What wasn’t expected was the difficulty in getting a GPS for navigating the city – in my rate category, the only way to get a GPS was to upgrade the entire car at $30 extra per day (I bought a map for $4 at Target).  The car itself was stripped, tiny, rattling, nothing automatic, miles of road use to catalog so that I didn’t get charged for ‘new’ dents and dings.

I understand that a deep discount links to a ‘spare’ room or vehicle, not a suite, not a limo.  But that should be a standard room, or a compact car, not the ’Hotwire special’ reserved for fools.

If hotels and rental agencies don’t want to offer a room at a discount price, then don’t.

But if you do, remember that this will likely be the first and only time that this customer will  be doing business with you.

What sense is there in giving them a bad experience?

Especially I they can write about it on TripAdvisor?

Years ago I experienced the Expedia Room at the Renaissance in Amsterdam.  It’s an otherwise lovely hotel that literally checked me into a maids closet at the back, with exposed ceiling  pipes and dripping sink next to a flop-mattress.  I spent the night scrawling invective onto the complaint card, then wrote Expedia to say I just couldn’t book with them again when hotels do this.  They wrote back to say that they were aware of the practice but were  helpless to control it.

And, lest you think it’s just me, there’s a delightful PowerPoint on the same topic posted to the internet years ago: Yours is a Very Bad Hotel.  ‘Required reading, and a sadly familiar story (it even tags the DoubleTree).

Disclaimer: I have no affiliation with any of the companies mentioned, and pay my own way everywhere: nobody asked or incented me to write this account.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Wrapping up with China

DSC07593I put together my pictures from China today, running through the notes that I scribbled along the way.  It really was a remarkable trip, although it ran so quickly and intensely that there just wasn’t time to get my head around everything during the journey.  This series of photo essays has been a good chance to think things through, even though I feel like I’ve only been able to touch lightly across a portion of the ideas and experiences.

And here, life rolls on.  It’s been a busy couple of weeks since returning and I feel like it’s time to move along to more immediate things.  There are still a few China topics I’ll return to, but ‘back to the here-and-now’, for now.

And, yes, the figure on the right doesn’t belong: it’s Haroobang, a Korean fertility idol.  The rest are all Emperor Qin’s army.

Monday, October 17, 2011

Boats and babies

Travel on the waterways follows a hierarchy similar to travel on the streets: a little of everything from one-person push-powered rafts to large people-movers that churn in endless lines through tourist sites.

The best (most relaxing, most scenic) travel is via river raft, a long array of parallel bamboo poles, turned up at each end, and pushed with a long pole much like a Cambridge punt.  There are a lot of similarities in the design, the major difference being the water seeping between the poles (especially when the whole raft submerges going over dams) and the 180-degree spin that boatsmen give the pole after each push.  I’m dying to try this technique out when I’m at Scudamores again.

As with bicycles, these rafts are also used commercially for fishing and to deliver fresh fish and shrimp to tour boats.  When ferrying tourists, they are often armed with pump-action water cannons to keep the kids amused, so people tend to give one another some space.

 

Add a motor, and the same raft becomes a lethal missile, arrowing up and down the banks and darting between the boats.  The motor is a single-stroke engine driving a propeller at the end of a long ole – this keeps it from catching on the bottom and simplifies steering. They travel in packs that remind me of Apocalypse Now.

 

Boats and barges are large and, in contrast to the cars, well regimented as they ply the rivers.  Navigation buoys are oppositely arranged from what we use in the US, but the signaling via horns and lights is very familiar.  Boats load up with tourists in the morning and take off, single file, to visit countryside and canyon for three hour trips.  No wilderness experience, but the on-board dining and open-air viewing is superb.

 

 

Oh, right, and the baby…