Tuesday, June 25, 2013

The Similarity Problem

At our Sandbox Accelerator class about value propositions and market segmentation, led by Sidd Goyal (CTO of Tinyurl), the issue of "knowing your customer" came up.  

A guy who runs at Personal Training start-up in Lawrence piped up when the subject came around to adjusting to customers you didn't expect.

When he started training, he expected to be working with guys.  He imagined himself helping them boost their stats in the compound exercises (i.e. the stuff guys brag about to each other, like bench, squats, deadlift).  

But what did he find?

Most of his actual customers are older than he would've imagined them to be, and his client base is predominantly female.  

What was his takeaway?

Besides the obvious (hey, adapt to who your customer is if you want to stay in business), he dipped into the psychological aspect of it a bit.  The guys he imagined working with didn't necessarily feel like they wanted/needed another guy to help them with that stuff...esp. one who wasn't carrying around the frame and physique of a WWF WWE wrestler.  

For service-based businesses, where the *personality* factor matters way more than it does for people selling, say, iPhone cases, this is an underrated/underappreciated point.  

My business is trying to do for online identity/security what DARE and MADD do for drug abuse and drunk driving.  The analogy is imperfect, but I think that helps to frame the Big Idea.  

Who do you think is the LEAST receptive to it?  Anyone with even a whiff of tech in their background.  It's worse if they're male, and fuhgeddaboudit if they're under 50.  

Who are the biggest champions?  30+ clients into the game, they all trace back to a single individual in Chelmsford.  Who is she?  Just a really nice lady who I got to know, first over the phone, then in person.  And whose patrons, or *customers* appreciated the service, and told her.  She matters to a lot of people in her network, and she's got no reason to be threatened by the earnest veteran entrepreneur from up the road. The other big *Key Influencer* is someone in Danvers, but she traces back to the first one, too.  After that, it's a guy in Salem who couldn't care less about how many APIs he can integrate with, or whether the slow speed of TOR makes it an undesirable choice for surfing w/o a traceable IP.  

So, THOSE are the people who are keeping me busy.  

When a high school principal on the phone tells me, "Greg, this sounds great, but I'm going to have to refer this to our technical guy.  Why don't you e-mail me and I'll kick it over to him?", I know exactly what it means.  That technical guy wants me coming in w/this program about as much as he wants someone to open a jar of Ebola on his desk, right in front of the fan. 

Sometimes similarity breeds affinity.  Other times, it's a recipe for a cold shoulder.  

Sunday, June 23, 2013

My $0.02 about "Giving Back" and "It's Not About ME!"

"There is no politician so brave or so honest...as the one who isn't running for office, and isn't going to be."  -- Weld

Council election season is getting into full swing.

I didn't mean to leave out the School Committee, btw, but it's hard to say something is in "full swing" when it's shaping up to be a challenger-free race.

As we move across summer and into fall, we can expect candidate profiles in local media, candidate forums involving the entire slate of incumbents and challengers, and plenty of bloggery to go around.  One of the most natural questions we should expect to hear is, "Why are you running?"  Chances are, the most common response that we'll hear -- particularly among the challengers -- is "To give back."

Personally, I find that answer to have a nails-on-chalkboard quality.

If you really want to give back -- and that's all you want to do -- you could do any of a million things that would serve the community in a less-public way.  You could volunteer to teach literacy or ESL @ the Pollard, you could become a Big Brother/Big Sister, you could volunteer at a clinic, etc.  Sure, you'd be doing something good, but to borrow the phraseology of my friend Jack Mitchell, you just might not get "caught doing good."

In response, some might say that holding public office is just a way to give back on a bigger scale.  Fair point, but the very nature of the beast reveals that there are plenty more people running then there are seats, and ALL the folks in the race -- challengers and incumbents -- will expend a great deal of time, money, and toil in the process.  If it really were *just* about giving back in a completely pure way, I would think one could find a truly unfilled need (i.e. a shortage of literacy tutors) and then seek to fill it.  By that same logic, if it were really the case that the city couldn't find nine people to run, and someone's arm were twisted into it, then yes, that person might be "giving back."

I'll concede that some things are tried-and-true because they've been tried, and well, they've worked -- this probably works better as one guy's rant than it does as sound advice.  I'm sure plenty of people will say something about "giving back" on the campaign trail this year, and they'll come out quite fine.  Personally, though, it just doesn't resonate for me the way a more substantive answer like, "I want to see the Council move in [x] direction" does...or even something unspecific but more to the point, i.e. "I don't want to be on the sidelines."

While on the topic, another cringe-inducer is "this isn't about ME."  Unless we used a system in which we voted for slates or parties directly, this just won't pass my smell test.  SOMEONE is running, with his or her name splashed all over campaign paraphernalia.  That person's name will be on a ballot, that person's name will occupy one of the "wedges" placed on the desks if elected, and no matter what the person does for the rest of his/her days, they will have that fancy "The Honorable" title.

The only way that anyone could convince me that it isn't about him/her is by not running.  Instead, find the candidates you like, support them on the blogs or in the paper, donate if you can, hold signs if you can, etc.

My hat goes off to ANY person who runs for ANY public office.  Right off the bat, someone who takes the effort to get onto a ballot and present himself/herself before the masses has my respect.  But someone who tells me the sky isn't blue -- even as I'm staring right at it -- and thinks I'm not keen enough to see the contrast, loses a wee bit of that respect then and there.  

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Mayoral Reform

So the Mayor's Aide position is about to come under budgetary review again.  I won't be at the meeting, and I won't even be watching (I'll be discussing the finer points of prime factorization and the rules of special triangles to would-be b-schoolers, which may actually be more fun).

I'm not sure what to call it  (Survivor's guilt, maybe?), but I feel a slight something-is-wrong pang in my stomach when I think about the upcoming review process.  I took a few blows early on, but that was it.  I handed things off to a successor who has had to put up with far, far worse from the blogs, former colleagues at the paper, and people seeking to create problems out of thin air (i.e. a single reference to Greek food in a proclamation becoming a trivialization of Greek accomplishments).  

The REAL conversation we need to be having concerns the stated and implicit expectations we place on our Plan E Mayor.  For a moment, let's put aside all issues of the Charter, of mayoral "strength," and even of the Aide position.    You can call the Lowell Mayor role "ceremonial" as much as you like, but it comes with requirements involving City Council meetings, committee meetings, pre-meetings, tete-a-tetes with Administration officials, School Committee meetings, School Committee pre-meetings, discussions with the Superintendent's office, and more.  On top of that, there are expectations that the Mayor attend everything from ribbon cuttings to flag raisings to Little League opening days.  It never stops.  

We need to call this position what it is -- a full-time job.  We need to call it that, we need to treat it that way, and we need to compensate it that way.  

Unless we do that, we're either restricting the position to retirees, the independently wealthy, the self-employed who can absorb a temporary salary hit, or people whose "civilian jobs" are compatible with the non-stop demands associated with the position of Lowell Mayor.  

It's hard to get anyone to agree to any argument that's essentially saying, "Something is broken, but we can fix it by giving a person in a public position even more money."  But before you dismiss this out of hand, consider that the Mayor of Lowell makes less per hour than do the people championed by "living wage" protesters on any college campus.  The Mayor makes far less per hour than any other City employee or even any private employee in the city, let alone his/her aide.  

Some might counter and say, "But shouldn't this all come down to service?"  Yes, it should.  I would never advocate that we directly elect someone who receives a salary akin to what the CM makes -- that could certainly skew things in a way we might not like.  However, the Council can continue to elect a Mayor as primus inter pares after the electorate has already sent that person to the Council.  If we called the position what it is (a full-time job) and paid it what it's worth, then the door would be open to any of the nine (assuming they could tell their current employer, 'See you in two.') 

Service is a wonderful thing.  In order for people to be able to do it, it helps if they can take care of things like rent/mortgage, car payments, insurance, child care, 529 contributions, groceries, gas, etc.  

THIS is a conversation we need to be having. 

Saturday, June 15, 2013

Throwing Your Hands Up

I had an interaction this morning that was sufficiently memorable -- in a strange sort of way -- that I thought it was worth blogging about.

Just after the formal portion of the flag retirement ceremony at Westlawn, I saw someone who is not a close friend, but certainly an acquaintance who I greatly respect(ed).

I said hello, and she wasted no time with this response: "I said 'hi' to you on the train, and you didn't say anything back.  Right then and there, I said, 'Greg's off my list.'"

There was no smile, no slap on the back, and no "just busting balls" moment of levity right afterwards.  She was being completely serious -- not spiteful or angry, but certainly matter-of-fact.  She is from a different generation, so there's a bit of a communication gap there, but it was very clear to me that this was a one strike, and you're out.  And it was clear to me also that this "strike" hadn't come anywhere near the plate.

I have no doubt that the *incident* occurred, as I frequently take the train between Lowell and Boston.  It could have happened at North Station, it could have happened on the platform in Lowell, or -- most likely scenario -- as one of us was passing through an aisle in search of a seat.

I can't say I don't care (after all, I'm writing about it now, which proves that I must care on at least some level).  However, I noticed a big change in the way I reacted.  A few years ago, something that like that would've led to more follow-on questions from me.  I would've taken the time to learn what happened (my best guess is that I was deep in the morning paper and neither heard nor saw her), and I would have made an earnest effort to walk away on a more harmonious note.

I did none of that.

Awkward social interactions are always going to happen; trying to stamp them out altogether is an exercise in futility.  If both people defaulted towards an assumption of good faith on the part of the other, though, no one would have to hold stupid grudges over imaginary slights.

I heard someone explain the other day that as individuals, we are each the collective average of the five people who we spend the most of our time with.  If that's the case, maybe some culling now and then isn't the end of the world.  Even though this particular person isn't anywhere near my Circle of Five, the point is still valid -- if someone draws sharp lines in that arbitrary manner, it would've been a matter of time until something happened that 'de-listed' me -- perhaps it would've been something equally stupid, and arbitrary.   

Thursday, June 13, 2013

The 'Resting Face' Thing

This video is obviously filed under "Humor/Spoof" but if you read the comments below the video in YouTube, you will see a lot of people describing how much it sucks to have an expression that gets misinterpreted.

After being asked for the gazillionth-millionth time "What's wrong?" or "Who just killed your dog?" I learned as a kid to always make sure I had something to read in my hands (If I had come of age in the smartphone era, it may never have been a problem), because then I could simultaneously get lost in my own thoughts without having to get the annoying question-interruptions.

And one more serious point of advice in the realm of social skills -- if ANYONE in your life suffers from the "BRF" referred to in this video, don't ever-ever-ever start a conversation with a "What's wrong?" or even an "Is everything okay?"  That's a very-very-very tone deaf way to come at a person.

Instead, try something completely neutral, i.e. 'Hey, what's up,' or 'I'm putting a pot of coffee on...want any?'  Whether the person was just lost in thought, or whether something really was wrong, can be calibrated based on that answer.

And if you don't understand why 'neutral' always beats 'aggressive' as an opener, then I just can't help you.  If you suffer from BRF (or its male equivalent), I'm with ya.

Hat tip to Paul Hogue for the post to Facebook.  

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

What's Your Time Worth? It's Complicated...

No one can put a precise dollar figure on an hour of his or her time -- it's just way too complicated.

Yes, you may be a lawyer that bills clients at $350/hr, but that doesn't mean that volunteering to coach a Little League team for three hours every Saturday means you're coughing up $1050 each time.   Of course it's more complicated than that, UNLESS you were 100% certain that you could be using that time to bill clients and you somehow COULDN'T bill those hours during any other three-hour time block throughout the week.  If that scenario could somehow play out in just that manner, then yes, you'd have a great case to make.

Other things aren't so clear.  If you make a 120k/yr to commute to Marlborough, you're not really *losing* money when 495 gets backed up and you get stuck for an hour.  With any salaried position, it's just not that cut and dry.  It's way too pat to take your annual salary, divide it by the # of hours you work, and say that a pointless, stupid meeting "cost" your company [insert dollar amount here] of your time -- because part of the benefit of having salaried employees is that they can do various things for you, and help in various ways.  Maybe you've referred some great clients to the firm.  Maybe you helped close some important sales.  That's why they see the value in paying you a set amount of money each year...it builds some predictability into both sides of the equation.

Someone once tried to tell me that because Bill Gates *makes* more than 100k/second (this was during a headier time for MSFT), it would not be worth it for him to pick up a $100 bill during the workday.  Even the teenaged version of me knew that to be drivel at the time -- it's not as if Bill Gates is actively engaged in a process that yields north of $100/second.  But there are enough people who really somehow believe (or believed) that line that perhaps it proves a point about the difficulty of valuing your time.

I made $75 yesterday for 1.5 hours' worth of "billable" work as a tutor.  Sounds awesome, right?  If you quickly saw that number, set up a proportion involving 40 (for hours) in the denominator and solved for the missing variable, you'd think I was pulling in tons of money each week.  And if that really were the case, I would be.

But consider this:  If someone lives in the Back Bay, and I live in Lowell, there's no truly easy way to slice it.  Factor in a walk, a wait, a commuter rail ride, another walk, a short taxi hop (hey, it was pouring!), and then the time spent "on site" plus the reverse of all those things I just laid out, and suddenly the hourly rate has gone way, way down.

Throw some prep time in for good measure, and that hourly wage has now hit single digits.

I must be a huge sucker, right?

Well, again, not so simple -- the value of time has to be based in large part on opportunity cost.  I can't make a reasonable conclusion about that time without considering how else it could have been used.

Plus, there are other intangibles -- the train time can be used for reading, Facebooking, or other personal pursuits.  Can that really be counted?  And I like to walk anyway, so is the trudge across the Common and down Boylston St. really so bad?  The needed prep time will go down over time, so how does that factor in?

With any consideration you add, there's always another "but what about..." to throw into the stew.

One thing is for sure, though -- I can get a heckuva lot more bang for my proverbial buck by "boxing" in my availability to specific time blocks.  If I can schedule the appointments during those blocks, great; if not, too bad.  Multiple students in a row without in-between travel time adds up to some darn good money.  For an individual trip all the way in and back, I'd come out better stocking the shelves in a supermarket.

To summarize:

Lesson #1:  Valuing your time is complicated.  No easy answers.
Lesson #2:  Even taking Lesson 1 into account, schedule "optimization" can greatly tilt the value equation in one's favor.  

Monday, June 10, 2013

The People

One of the most enduring cliches you hear at b-school usually goes something like this: "...and the best part of all is THE PEOPLE!  They are all so wonderful and amazing!  OMG I'm gonna miss these [insert cute nickname of people at a particular school] so much!"

I think some of the people are great.  Some are phenomenally accomplished, some are incredibly smart, some have plans to change the world via [insert cool new sustainable energy concept, AI platform that solves [insert problem], etc.

Others, maybe not.  Some are just ambitious twenty-somethings who spent a couple years in consulting, punched a ticket with Teach For America, or who "walked away from the corporate thing, man" to do one of the most conventional things possible.

As for interesting people, and the interesting stories that narrate their lives, you could do worse than look at the Guard/Reserve.  As I've written here before, my reasons for sticking around are mostly practical ones, but one thing that always reels me back in when my mind starts to drift is the chance to spend the first weekend of my month with some pretty amazing folks.

I'm about to head to Worcester.  It's an Officer Candidate School board for a kid who grew up in Baghdad idolizing Michael Jordan and watching American movies to learn his impeccable, American-accented English.  He became a civilian 'terp' (interpreter) for the U.S. military.  He served honorably in that capacity for several years, frequently exposing himself to as much danger as any front-line U.S. troop (think about it...he has to be front and center in pretty much everything to perform that role).  He came to the U.S., and now lives in this "general area" (and that's as close as I'll get...he likes his relative privacy).  He enlisted in the Army Reserve.  Although he had an advanced technical degree, it was earned in Iraq.  He "sucked it up" and served as an E-4 while waiting to finish a Bachelor's in the U.S.  He is now about to sit in front of a three-officer board who will determine his worthiness to attend OCS.

He's got 10 times the life story and perspective of the typical student at a top-10 b-school, but with only 1/10th of the self-importance.

Having tea with a guy like THAT the first weekend of each month is something I look forward to. That's the type of person I'll miss once he goes for his "butter bar" at OCS.

Someone who thinks the "world sucks" because JetBlue kept her on the tarmac for 30 extra minutes at Logan?  Maybe not so much.  

Friday, June 7, 2013

There's a Lot to Bank With in Lowell (Thankfully)

In case anyone wants to know how to turn a prospect into a non-prospect very quickly, I will relay a quick story that really just happened. 

I am curious to learn more about commercial loans.  I called a well-known bank here in town (and they will remain nameless, out of respect for the innocent).  I left a friendly voicemail with a particular commercial lending officer, who called me back a few minutes ago.  Here is a paraphrased version of how that call transpired, her words in italics.

"Hello, is this Greg Page?"


"You called earlier, so I'm returning your call."

"Well, I'd like to learn more about commercial loan opportunities."

"What do you mean?  I'm not sure what you're looking for.  Are you looking for a term loan or a line of credit?  Without knowing what you need, I can't answer anything specific."  

"Okay, well I'm not entirely sure myself.  I called you because I don't know a lot about commercial lending, but would like to learn more about what's out there, what the options might be, etc."

"Do you need this for commercial real estate?  Is there property involved?" 

"No property involved.  It's a start-up with a very low cash burn.  I would just need something to help me cover basic living expenses so that I could operate the start-up without having to work other jobs."

"Oh, it's a start-up.  Those are very risky.  Well, I still don't understand what you're asking me." [tone becomes increasingly condescending].

"Well, I guess you could say it's a general query.  Okay, why don't I throw some numbers at you just to play around with [numbers get thrown]."

"Well, I have no way to answer that, because I don't know anything about the guarantor [said extra slowly, dripping with this-guy-doesn't-know-what-I-just-said].  Do you have a business plan?

"As a matter of fact, yes.  And there are monthly revenue projections for each of the next three years."

"Oh.  Well, I still don't understand what you're trying to find out." 

"Okay, let's back it up a bit here.  The reason I called you is precisely because I don't know what I don't know.  What would you usually tell someone is the next step to take when they have a very general query about commercial loans?"

"Well, I would usually meet with them in person, and they'd have a business plan with them."  

"Alright, so you're saying the phone isn't the best way to initiate these sorts of conversations.  Would it make more sense to come in?"

"You might want to check out resources like the SBA in town.  Where do you live?  I could look up the phone numbers for you."  

"I live downtown, right here in Lowell.  I'm all set.  I can look up the numbers."

"Okay, well bye then."

At no point during the conversation did she even muster the curiosity to ask a single question about WHAT the business was, WHETHER we had any existing revenue/clients, or WHAT I could do to follow up with her.

Whatever happened to the salesperson who doesn't want to let you off the line?  Why not humor me?  Why not EXPLAIN TO ME the difference between the various options, and schedule a follow-up?

Instead, it was a steaming pile of condescension, peppered with the "I don't know what you mean" stuff that I would expect from a recalcitrant junior soldier ("Sir, when you said sweep the TOC and take the trash out, I didn't know exactly what you meant by that...so I couldn't get it done.")

Thankfully, there a lot of banks in Lowell.  Many seem to do well.  One seems to do so well that it apparently doesn't need my business.  

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Michael Douglas, Oncologist?

Back in October 2010, after getting the news that "the margins were all good, and all the lymph nodes we scoped were clean" report, I blogged about that news here on the site.

I noted that I would not become "Cancer Guy," and can most definitely say I've lived up to that vow.  There's typically no reason to ever bring it up, and other than a slight bit of facial asymmetry (there's a wee bit *more* of me on the left side b/c of the neck dissection), there's no noticeable difference I would need to explain, like when I couldn't pronounce certain letters for a while.  When people see the massive scar on my arm (yes, an arm can become a tongue, just w/o the tastebuds), they probably assume it's military-related and too awkward to ask about.  No one ever has.  

But that's not about denial -- it's about putting something difficult in the rearview, and it's also about not driving other people nuts (the same reason I don't post FB statuses about what I'm eating or the run I just did...who, exactly, is supposed to care?)

I've never said "No" to Mass Eye and Ear for anything.  To say that's the least I could would be a huge understatement.  Annual brochure, awareness video, news clip for a syndicated medical segment?  Yes, yes, and yes.  Not everyone gets the best medical care in the world.  I do.  If I can help them raise awareness of something very serious that could help save someone's life, that's a no-brainer.  If the story of diagnosis-treatment-successful deployment-successful follow-ups helps paint that narrative, all the better.

And the whole awareness thing is key because cancer survival has everything to do with detection.  Catch it early enough, and it's surgery.  Wait too long, and it's way more complicated.  Radiation around the mouth can make it harder to produce saliva.  Too little saliva could mean tooth decay.  Tooth decay can create new problems.  And so on.

In Michael Douglas' case, he did wait too long.  Because "cancer" might not have been one of the originally-suggested reasons for the oral discomfort, it was somehow missed by his original medical team, despite the walnut-sized tumor developing on his tongue.

Anyway, Michael Douglas made waves this week by saying that his cancer was "caused" by all the oral sex he has performed over the years.  While I won't doubt the lovemaking/lady-pleasing prowess of Michael Douglas, there is an important problem with the word "caused" there.  And not in the stodgy, cranky grammarian way I try to correct misuse of words like "notoriety" or "humbled," but in a far more important sense that actually matters.

HPV-16 and HPV-18 are undeniably, unquestionably linked to certain cancers, including oral ones.  So are smoking and drinking.

The drinking thing is of particular concern from those who are either born with, or develop, alcohol intolerance that prevents functioning of the enzyme needed to process alcohol into acetic acid.  If you want to read all about the linkage between the single nucleotide polymorphism associated w/the onset of alcohol intolerance and the risks of squamous cell carcinoma, please feel free to click here.  If you want to read about the highly carcinogenic properties of acetaldehyde, Google it.

That's all a huge mouthful of five-dollar words, so sometimes it's easier to say, "I'll have a scotch and soda, hold the scotch."

Anyway, back to Michael Douglas for a second.  It's common folk wisdom, but not medically sound, to say a particular thing *caused* someone to get cancer.  No M.D./Ph.D. is going to say you got cancer "because" you grew up near Pilgrim 1, or because you stood near a microwave.  (Michael Douglas, btw, has a long and storied history of alcohol and tobacco use).  The trouble with saying it is that it's a step away from starting to stigmatize those who suffer from poorly-differentiated cell division.  (Note to anyone reading...if someone shares news of a cancer diagnosis w/you, there's one thing you should never say: "What did you do to get that?")

A growing percentage of oral cancer diagnoses involve HPV-positive patients.  Keep mind that 80-90 percent of people eventually have some strand of HPV, which typically comes and goes within a two-year span.    The vast majority of these strands do not have the cancer association.  And just like not every lung cancer diagnosis involves smoking, not every oral cancer diagnosis involves HPV.

Trust me, I know.

In a way, it's a great thing that Michael Douglas is getting this into the news, because it's sparking the conversation that lets people jump in to help separate fact from fiction.  Awareness is key.  If you feel a persistent, extremely sharp pain on or around your tongue that feels like someone is driving a nail through one of the most sensitive parts of your body, have someone check it out.  If the dentist sees a lesion, get a biopsy.  The biopsy process will be physically painful in way that I won't even attempt to talk about in this protracted blog entry, but there's only one worse option.

And that option is simply unpalatable.