Archives for the month of: February, 2009

Yesterday two things converged that really got me thinking about localism.

First, I published my analysis of Rockville Central’s reader survey. It was my first chance to see what the readers of my hyperlocal news site really thought about my volunteer work over the last eighteen months or so. It was very gratifying, and at the end I wrote: “[It is] clear that many, many of you who took the time to respond see Rockville Central as ‘yours.’ That means so much and I will always try to respect that.”

Second, I ran across a fascinating tips-from-the-trenches piece on what it’s like to take over and run a local newspaper. This piece included a great sidebar:

You Want To Buy A Weekly?

Find an owner/operator who is retiring. Don’t worry about quality. You can improve the content and revenue yourself. 

Financing was tough before the credit crunch, and it’s next to impossible now. So you may have to do an owner-financed deal or pay for this out of your own pocket. The price of a paper depends on its annual revenue, so if you’re looking for a deal, think small and rural.

Pack a lunch. You won’t have the time or the money to eat out for the first few months. (Perhaps years.)
 
Consider your business skills. You can create great journalism, but do you know how to run a circulation program and print labels? Keep track of ads and expenses? You have to take a hundred bags and bins to the post office — who will do that? 

Be humble. Readers don’t care if you won Pulitzer or interviewed governors. They care about their community, whether you make it better and whether you spell their name correctly.

Be true to yourself. This is tough. You’re running a business and you’re a valuable member of the community, but you have to uphold your core values.

All sounds very much like the advice I gave anyone thinking of starting their own community news blog!

It’s all got me thinking: Is it time to develop a real business model for Rockville Central, and embed it even further as a local institution?

My friend Thomas Kriese pointed me to a piece by a NY-based VC named Fred Wilson. It’s about “living publicly.” There are a lot of ways you might take that term — in this case it describes the state that it seems many of my friends experience these days. With all the blogging, Twitter, FaceBook, FriendFeed, and whatnot, it seems like we are living on display, out there in public for all to see.

Fred bases his post on an email message from Jason Calacanis that outlines a number of the negative consequences that one faces when one is a blogger. One such observation: “At some point, a participant, or more typically his or her thinking, will be compared to the Nazis.”

That seems a pretty steep price to pay, just because one writes a blog. But I can tell you, the negative feedback inherent in living in public is real. While you may take great care over each specific blog post, the sad truth is that most people who are moved to comment do so becuase they disagree with you, and they only rarely take as much care with their comments as you did in the first place. The result, for many bloggers, is a constant, low-grade irritation. Any given post will generate resentful comments or emails. It adds up and eventually you just become inured.

Still, it’s disconcerting. “But, this is what you asked for,” some might say. After all, aren’t you seeking fame? The thing is . . . no. Most bloggers I know actually want to connect, to hold a meaningful dialogue, or have a forum within which to flesh out their thoughts. (That’s typically what I am after in my various online fora.) They aren’t seeking celebrity. So it seems an unfair thing to say that they somehow “deserve” negative attention for having the courage to speak up.

Nevertheless, the benefits outweigh the drawbacks, at least in my view. I feel a greater sense of connection, encounter a greater diversity of ideas, and connect with a wider range of people than I would otherwise, all through online social media.

Fred Wilson has been living publicly in this way for some years, and his post ends with a series of useful rules for doing so and keeping a smile:

1) Keep your family out of it until they want to be in it
2) Be nice.
3) Demand that others are nice back.
4) Encourage the community to police the comments. Early on Jackson was my “bouncer” and now Kid Mercury has assumed that role.
5) Take the nasty comments lightly and use humor to defuse them.
6) Do not delete comments unless they are hateful to others, porn, or spam.
7) Ignore the trolls even though it kills you
8) Be careful with photos. They greatest lesson I got was when I posted a photo of me on vacation looking smug. Bad move that I learned a lot from.
9) Give more than you take.
10) Enjoy yourself. Talking, discussing, and debating is fun. Keep it that way.

Great advice.

A remarkable report crossed my desk from the Groundswell folks at Forrester Research. It’s a study of the social media habits of a representative sample of business-to-business buyers.

These are the folks you imagine are dry. Buying stuff for their company, from other companies. Where’s the innovation to be had there?

Well, you’d be surprised. This group of people are among the most socially active. Fully 91% of them use some form of social media — 69% are using it for business purposes. This isn’t just sucking time with FaceBook. “This means you can count on the fact that your buyers are reading blogs, watching user generated video, and participating in other social media,” according to the Groundswell blog post.

A key finding of the report:

If you’re a B2B marketer and you’re not using social technologies in your marketing, it means you’re late. We’ve seen a lot of excellent activity here from the likes of Dell and National Instruments (both won Forrester Groundswell awards) but a lot of the blogs, communities, and other social outreach from business to business companies is less than mature, to say the least. This is your chance to stand out. Take this report and show it to your boss to convince her that it’s time to get started.

I recently witnessed an interesting event. 

Some people I know on Facebook, who had sort of reconnected after a long hiatus since childhood, got into a political argument and appear to have “broken up.”

Each side had their points, but it was a great example of how hard it can be to engage with people you disagree with. We like to call for people to “disagree without being disagreeable” but it’s easier said than done.

In this case, the rhetoric was OK for almost the entire exchange, and then — it seemed almost in the midst of a post — one of them got angry and made mention of unfriending the other. At that point, the other basically said “fine. See if I care.”

“I divorce thee,” in other words.

It’s easy to wring one’s hands and think “oh, it could have been avoided.” But I’m not so sure. Sometimes people just get in fights. It takes a lot of energy to stay out of that paradigm when you feel strongly about something.

Will they patch it up? I don’t know.

I do know that, once things are said . . . they become very difficult to unsay.

Some of my friends and colleagues in a number of organizations have continued to ask me about using social media, and specifically Twitter, in real ways that actually help the organization fulfill its mission.

As I said in a recent post, executives don’t need fancy, shiny tools that are neat — they need things that work and add value.

Rachel Reuben, writing at Amber Naslund’s Altitude Branding blog, recently touched on some important things to keep in mind for any organization implementing a “Twitter strategy.” (Andrea Jarrell pointed the piece out to me.)

This important idea is simple: Make sure you are backing up in the real world what you are doing in the online media space.

Rachel writes:

Imagine what the world would be like if real-life was like our Twitter world. You’d go to a grocery store and there’d actually be a real-life bagger, and s/he would ask if they could bring your groceries to the car for you. (Oh wait, that does exist at Publix in Florida.) You’d go into a Wal-Mart, where everyone has aprons that say “how can I help you?” and they actually would, instead of nervously avoiding eye contact and running away from you when you can’t find something in their behemoth of a store. You’d sit in on a committee meeting at work and offer to help with the next task at hand, and everyone in the room jumps at the chance to help as well. You walk into a packed auditorium and ask if anyone knows how to fix your broken Facebook application, and half the crowd stands up and shouts the answer to fix it.

In reality, most grocery stores I frequent don’t have baggers, would never offer to help bring groceries to your car, and are never around when you need help finding something. Committees tend to be filled with naysayers and difficult individuals who aren’t there to really contribute much.

But… what if they did? What if Comcast repair technicians were all as helpful as Frank Eliason is on Twitter (@comcastcares)? . . .  What if every single employee at Home Depot responded as quickly and kindly as @thehomedepot does — including follow-ups 24 hours later? Do these companies have the same inward culture as they appear with their Twitter personas?

If you’re representing your company/business/brand on Twitter — are you being helpful? Or, are you just “listening” and there for damage control? Excellent customer service is still the foundation of solid business success, and Twitter provides the perfect way to expand your customer service initiatives into this space. If you’re helpful on Twitter, that will build a strong foundation for relationships outside the Twitter world, which is, unfortunately where the far majority of us have to live most of our life. We could use more helpful people in this real life world.

This is important, becuase often organizations spend lots of time “strategizing” what they will do with social media. But the reality is that it ain’t rocket science. The best practice I have run across is to find (or get) someone on your organization who is into this stuff — and let them go to town. Make it their job to be present everywhere, in helpful ways.

Then — and this is the kicker — make sure that your actions are in line with your online presence.

You may find, on honest reflection, that you just aren’t up to the task organizationally. Not becuase you can’t handle the social media piece — because you might not be able to back it up.

If that’s the case, you may want to reassess a few things.

My friend Peter Levine, who is one of the deepest and most engaging thinkers I know on trends involving youth and civic participation, is coauthor of an important new paper that was released on Wednesday at a New America Foundation event. I had the opportunity to attend and found it well worth my time.

Titled “The Millennial Pendulum: A New Generation of Voters and the Prospects for a Political Realignment” and written by Peter Levine, Constance Flanagan, and Les Gallay, the report is an important report how a particular generation is changing over time.

That’s important, because while it is certainly true that young people are by and large more liberal than their elders, conventional wisdom has it that they move rightward as they age. This study examine the Millennial Generation in those terms, trying to see just how liberal (or conservative) the Gen-Y is and what the prospects are for movement.

The report’s summary:

Today’s young people have considerably more progressive opinions about economic issues than do their elders. Under-30s voted very strongly for Barack Obama in 2008 and expressed liberal views about the economy (and about other issues) in pre-election polls. Observers and strategists are now asking whether we will see a lasting change in American politics as a result of the Millennials’ arrival. It is possible that they are liberal because they are young, and they will move to the right as they grow older. But analyses of the trajectories across time of several recent generations, summarized in this paper, suggest that the Millennials have a more progressive identity than did previous generations at their age and are likely to move the country leftward on economic and social issues for decades to come.

This is important reading from a significant thinker. I recommend it.

On Monday night, the Cub Scout pack of which I have been Cubmaster for the past four years held its annual Blue and Gold banquet. We’re a large pack, and when all the families get together it’s about 200 people.

This was my last meeting with the pack, as my son has grown and is now too old. He can now enter the Boy Scouts. 

Since it was the last time I had a chance to address all the families at once, I took the opportunity to say a few words. Here they are.

As I retire tonight, I’m glad to know that Pack 928 is thriving.

When our family joined Pack 928 back in 2005, there were 32 boys. Just a few years before, the Pack had considered closing up shop. Today there are 55 boys and you can see that we are near capacity in this very large room. When we go family camping there are 120 people and more. Almost every den is full.

How did this happen? I believe it happened because of all the parents who have stepped forward in leadership of the Pack. The only way we can keep going is if people pitch in. And the more people participate, the stronger the Pack becomes.

I got involved in leadership with this Pack not because I stepped forward but because I was pushed. I was terrified when they asked me. But being a part of the leadership of this Pack has been one of the most fulfilling parts of my life for the past few years.

Very soon after I became Cubmaster, Cindy Griffiths became Committee Chair. Cindy is better organized than me and has a far better memory. Her work is what really makes the Pack run. Her good example has kept pushing me.

Some days, I could not have gotten up if it had not been for my wife Andrea Jarrell, who has had faith in me. That faith has kept pushing me.

After each Pack meeting, I drive home with my son Daniel. I can tell he’s proud of his dad. That pride has kept pushing me.

Those pushes have kept me going. Left to my own devices, I might have never been here.

***

There’s another thing that has kept me going too.

You may remember that last year we had a parents’ pinewood derby. My car did not do very well. I was disappointed and it showed on my face. One boy came up to me and said “It’s hard to hide your tears, isn’t it?” This boy had lost a race just a few minutes before and it had been hard on him. Now, here he was, reaching out to me out of compassion, trying to help me out. He wasn’t thinking about himself.

That episode has had me thinking ever since.

We like to talk about how prepared Scouting can make boys — and it does. We like to talk about how much fun it can be — and it is. But in the end, Scouting is about making boys into the best people they can possibly be.

So, I think of how I have watched so many boys grow in Scouting. How I have seen so many boys learn to do things they were initially scared of. I think of the older boys who are beginning to learn to be leaders, helping out the younger boys. I think of the boys who are learning how to take a deep breath and plan instead of rush forward. I think of the younger boys, who are just learning to wear their uniforms and sit still.

I think of my son Daniel, and how he has grown so well.

These boys are why we are all here.

So, boys, I want to thank every one of you. You may not realize it, but every time you learn something, we adults grow a little too.

I am going to miss this Pack but I know you are in good hands with Cindy Griffiths and my successor Michael Mangum.

But most of all, the Pack is in good hands because you boys keep growing.

I am so very proud of you.

Thank you.

There is a lot of angst within the journalism (and journalism-curious) community lately, as there have been a controversial suggestion that the best way to reinvent journalism would be to make it a nonprofit, charitable endeavor.

One organization, the Voice of San Diego, gives a glimpse of what hard-hitting journalism can look like under a nonprofit model. A recent LA Times profile of VSD is fascinating.

But what really grabbed me was this paragraph:

Because it doesn’t have to print newspapers, Voice of San Diego puts the majority of its $825,000 annual budget into salaries for its 11 journalists, who make from $35,000 to roughly $70,000 and focus on government, education, law enforcement, real estate and science.

For a news organization, $825K is a small budget. But from where I sit, as the purveyor of a completely volunteer local news site, with a budget under $100 in direct costs per year — it seems Gargantuan. My main reactions are twofold:

  1. I want to try to “grow up”
  2. I think good journalism can be done for cheaper

I am not sure what it would look like, and I have a hunch I may be wrong, but . . . we’ll see.

In “The Smart Growth Manifesto,” Havas Media Lab’s Umair Haque points to a wholesale collapse of “old” things:

Obama is stimulating. Davos is deliberating. C-levels are eliminating. Wall St is recriminating. Welcome to the macropocalypse: no one, it seems, can put the global economy back together again.

He asks: “It’s time to reboot capitalism. So where do we begin?”

Haque’s main thrust is that the 20th century is failing because it was “dumb” and that in order to best grow, we need to be “smart.” 

Haque:

Here are the four pillars of smart growth – for economies, communities, and corporations:

1. Outcomes, not income. Dumb growth is about incomes – are we richer today than we were yesterday? Smart growth is about people, and how much better or worse off they are – not merely how much junk an economy can churn out. . . .

2. Connections, not transactions. Dumb growth looks at what’s flowing through the pipes of the global economy: the volume of trade. Smart growth looks at how pipes are formed, and why some pipes matter more than others: the quality of connections. . . .

3. People, not product. The next time you hear an old dude talking about “product”, let him know the 20th century ended a decade ago. Smart growth isn’t driven by pushing product, but by the skill, dedication, and creativity of people. . . .

4. Creativity, not productivity. Uh-oh: Creativity is an economic four-letter word. Why? Because it’s hard to measure, manage, and model. So economists focus on productivity instead — and the result is dumb growth. Smart growth focuses on economic creativity – because creativity is what let us know that competition is creating new value, instead of just shifting old value around. . . .

Time was when such a list would seem spot-on to me, a needed blast of clarity.

But these days, when I hear the word “smart” used in such a catch-all way, my urge is usually to put my watch in my shoe. It’s very tempting to create an intellectual framework where old things are bad and new things are, well, new and therefore better. I have soured on “smart” things of late — at least insofar as I look to “smart” systems to set the stage for innovation and revoluion.

Why? I look back at the great innovations of our time — the telphone, the World Wide Web, the notion of self-rule, online social-networks — and I see genius striking when and where it happens to be found, when the time is right (or even when it isn’t). I tend to look skeptically on efforts to harness growth (or innovation).

Great progress always comes in fits and starts, in disruptive ways. By definition, it seems to me, it can’t be planned-out.

Some of my friends know that, hidden in my dim, dark past, I used to do something involving electric bicycles. I’m here to tell you that, yes, it’s true and it was a colorful period of my life.

While I was working for then-California Controller Gray Davis, I met up with a charismatic man who had the vision thing in spades. His name was Malcolm Bricklin.

Malcolm was an automotive entrepreneur. He was the first American to get a perpetual license to import a Japanese vehicle — the Subaru. He parlayed that as a young man into quite an empire, and then sold out. His later efforts were not as successful, though they all had their silver linings and interesting moments. When Fiat quit importing the Spider, Malcolm stepped in and imported it with the “Bertone” badge. He created the Bricklin gull-wing door car (which enthusiasts still swear by and, I am given to understand, on which the DeLorean is based). He had an idea for cheap cars for the masses and created the Yugo — which, say what you want about it, but it was cheap.

In fact, that was Malcolm’s main vision: inexpensive cars, accessible for everyone.

He also had another vision. He thought electric vehicles were the wave of the future. Of course, he was right — just about fifteen years ahead of his time.

When I met Malcolm, he was trying to get an appointment with my boss, Gray, to talk about a new idea he had that would need some political support. There was a giant, shuttered General Motors factory in Van Nuys (the Valley area of Los Angeles). Malcolm wanted to use that as a factory to convert gasoline-powered cars into electric. The idea was this: You give Malcolm’s company your car and, say, $10,000 — and they give you back your same car but electric-powered.

While I think that is a cool idea, it never took off. But I was mesmerized, and so I left politics and went to work for Malcolm.

After trying to get electric cars off the ground for a time, Malcolm (and his business partner, a former GM Delco chairman and Hughes executive, coincidentally named Malcolm Currie) determined that the choke point in the whole enterprise was the battery industry. This fact is still being rediscovered today. There just is not enough capacity worldwide to make the number of high-tech batteries that would be needed for electric vehicles to be mass-manufacturable. Part if the reason that there was (and is) not enough capacity is that the battery companies did not see enough of a market. What if they built the factories and no one bought the batteries?

So Malcolm shifted gears. He needed to show the battery companies that if they built them, people would buy. 

Thus was born the EV Warrior electric bicycle. Malcolm created the Electric Bicycle Company and developed an infrastructure through car dealers to sell the bikes.

The EV-1 modelThe bikes had a casing on the back where a rack would be, that contained a motor and a battery. Press a lever on the handlebar, and the motor would kick in, propelling the bike up to about 15 miles per hour. (The image is from our promotional materials.)

It was an idea that had a great deal of merit, but the product was not up to the task and probably did not have a market. The bikes were very top heavy, the drive mechanism was finicky, and we never got quality control quite right.

We were also saddled with a bunch of weird regulations. Turns out if you slap even a low-powered motor on a bike it becomes a “vehicle.” That brings with it a host of issues. We had to create VIN numbers, meet Department of Transportation regulations, which included having headlights that were as powerful as car headlights, and riders had to wear motorcycle helmets and typically get special motorcycle licenses in order to ride the things. We’re talking bikes with little motors, here, and all this rigmarole just about killed the idea before it started.

But that was my job. The helmet and license thing. Me and a colleague, transportation consultant Ryan Snyder, went around to state capitals trying to get the laws changed in order to allow people to actually ride these things. Ryan had more success than I did with his states, but together we were able to get the law changed in California and I went on to get the law changed in Oregon and Washington states. W00t! The basic idea was simple: we created a new “class” of vehicle called the “electric assisted bicycle.” This new class of vehicle could be ridden without a special license, only on streets (not sidewalks), and anyone under 16 had to wear a helmet — but a bike helmet, not a motorcycle helmet. 

The company eventually folded before we really got going, but this was an exciting, if brief, period in my life. The characters I met were fascinating. Malcolm himself was a walking, charismatic bolt of lightning. But there were others: an erotic sculptor who designed the motor casing; the inventor of the “extended warranty” who did — well, I am not sure what, but car dealers thought he was a magician for inventing that thing; a former ad man and Bible scholar who was Malcolm’s right hand.

Once EBC closed I continued to do the same state capital work for some other electric bicycle firms (yes, there were others, making the Charger and the Zap) but that was not successful. The heyday had come and gone.

I am sure some of my readers are wondering: Did he register as a lobbyist in these states? To be honest, I cannot remember the details. I believe I did. Or at least I tried. But at some point, I also recall we got an opinion that, since I was working  only on one issue, I did not have to.

Here and there, though, you can see police forces using electric bicycles — mostly the Charger and Zap. The EV Warrior? Not so much — too heavy. More often, they are a curiosity hidden in various people’s garages. Will they ever emerge?

We’ll have to wait and see.

P.S. What happened to the Electric Bicycle Company? It was eventually purchased by Lee Iacocca. He renamed the company EV Global. That company no longer exists either.

(Image of Bricklin SV-1 from Motorbase.)