Category Archives: Business

Use Your Marbles: Buy a Beer Company and Learn to Ride a Bike

Normally I would share web sites via Twitter, but I have three to share – totally unrelated to each other except for mangled headline that I just came up with and didn't feel like cobbling together three Tweets.

First of all, if you happen to be looking to own a beer company – or at least part of one – here you go:  Please take note all you Pabst Blue Ribbon fans out there!

I love really clever uses of technology, and this is one of the neatest uses I've seen in a while.  A very simple concept being put to good use to teach kids how to ride bikes: Gyrobike

Last but not least, is this cool new store that is based out of Chicago but that I can see going national very easily, called Marbles.  Keeping an aging population's brain well-tuned is going to be a continuing theme for business everywhere,  and this addresses is directly. 

Cultural Shifts Among Coffee Shops, Newspapers and Shoppers

A few articles related to our everyday culture caught my eye today:

First, a very short article about the widening generation gap when it comes to "buying American."  I will admit that the idea of "Buy American" is a bit foreign (interesting choice of words) to me.  I didn't grow up in a household that was "always buy American" (we usually had a Honda or something in the family to go along with our GM or Ford), so I didn't have that influence growing up.  I remember when Walmart first started to expand nationally and started to come into the Northeast, their big thing was "American-Made Goods."  As that positioning fell away in favor of "always low prices," it is ironic that Walmart's push for lower cost goods is part of what has driven so many companies to switch to overseas manufacturing.  

However, separate fromthat influence, sales of foreign-made goods have obviously been growing for years, to the point where I think those of "generation y" and younger don't really think twice about buying something made in another country.   We don't remember a time when goods made in an Asian country meant something that would fall apart.  In many cases, we now equate it with a higher level of quality than many American-made products.  And when it isn't, we equate it with being cheap enough to just throw out and get a replacement.  When all of the Star Wars toys you played with growing are stamped with "Made in China" on their little plastic feet, you don't really think twice about buying a radio, TV, or car made in Asia. 

In addition, we live in a more globally connected world, one where you can easily speak with someone in China, India or Japan - not just over the phone, but via video conference, Skype, IM, or email.  Someone who is over 55 may remember when the only way of getting to the Far East involved slow moving ocean liners.  Now we can get there in under 24 hours on high speed jets that fly several times a day.  When you can overcome the geographic distance between people so easily, the thought of holding a physical object in your hand from that same country isn't as bewildering.  You don't question the technology that allows you to communicate or visit with them, so why question the fact that you're using a product made in that country? 

The second article is about the banning of laptop computers in coffee shops.  What struck me most about this article is not about the controversy over whether or not these cafes are doing the right thing for their business, but rather the fact that the articles refers to out-of-work professionals shacking up in these cafes so that they can use the wi-fi connections for the things they need to do: look for a job, pay bills, etc.  We've become so strongly connected to the Internetthat we simply can't operate without it.  What do you do when you do all of your on line "life management" using your work's internet connection, and then you suddenly don't have a job?  You're sitting there in limbo with no connection at home and unable to afford one, and in the meantime you've gone "paperless" with every company you do business with.  Where do you go? 

We may be creating a new type of homeless – those who have someplace to live, but no place to connect.  The "wandering netless" we could call them.  Forget tent cities and a 55-gallon drum filled with scrap wood for warmth under the overpass; we may see former professionals huddling around a router, vying for a sliver of bandwidth.   How long until the stories of widespread "hi-jacked WiFi signals" start to appear?  Perhaps it is just a matter of time until the local soup kitchen offers food, winter coats and free WiFi.  I don't mean to sound flip, but rather pose a serious question – as we become more connected (which most would say is a good thing, unless you want to buy American) how do we survive when we can no longer connect?

Last, but not least, and probably not completely unrelated to the above, is this analysis on what is killing the newspaper industry.  I admit that as net-centric as I am, I still love the traditional newspaper, especially the Sunday paper.  I like the tactile sensory experience of it, and the intellectual nature of paging through, browsing the news and feature articles.  With all the newsletters and web sites I read through during the course of a week, I still find new and interesting information in the newspaper whenever I pick it up. 

So basically, I have a soft spot for the traditional newspaper, and it makes me sad to think of it dying the slow, painful death that it is going through right now.   I agree with the analysis, even if I never thought about it in the way it is described: newspapers weren't in the business of delivering news – they were in the business of delivering ads right to the doorsteps and into the living rooms of their customers. 

As time and technology marched on, far more efficient and specialized ways have replaced that expertise, and in response, newspapers dug in their heels, and shed off some of the thing that made them unique in the first place.   They were able to keep making money by cutting costs and consolidating, but didn't keep their eye on the long game. 

I don't think the analysis offers up a lot of useful advice on turning things around, but I hope that someone out there reads it and figure out a way to save an industry that can be important… especially when you are carrying around your Japanese-manufactured laptop and can't find a place to get on the internet for the latest news!

Marketing and Music

For a long time, I wanted to work in the music industry, but as I networked my way closer to it, I quickly realized – and several people told me straight out – that if you're really passionate about music, the music industry isn't necessarily the best place to be.   Let's be honest – it is called the music "business" or "industry" for good reason.   So I've kept my interest in music personal – just being a fan – while turning marketing into my profession.  Considering the condition of the music business right now, it was probably a smart choice.

However, this means that I still find it interesting to learn about what is going on in the music industry and how music gets marketed.   This morning, a few good articles came across my inbox and thought I'd share and comment on them.

First is one called "The Art of the Gimmick" that is about the successful marketing that the band KISS has done over the years.   I really don't agree with her view that rock n' roll had become like a "pair of old shoes" in the late 60's.  Considering that the late 60's and early 70's is a period of robust creativity – The Who came out with "Tommy" in 1968 and "Who's Next" in 1971.   Rolling Stones had "Let it Bleed" in 1969 and "Sticky Fingers" in 1971.  There were also seminal albums from Led Zeppelin, Black Sabbath, and on and on.  In fact, now that I really think about it, this blogger isn't even thinking right – the "old comfortable shoes" statement is just downright WRONG. 

But I understand what she was trying to set-up: how successful KISS was at creating a "hook" (probably a better name than "gimmick") and parlaying that into commercial success over four decades now.  I think you could easily make the argument that KISS has simply become a merchandise machine, really not focusing on the music at all.

But that was then, and this is now, and the music world has changed, especially on the business side of things.  Record store chains have closed, and sales are way down.  Things have moved online and music has become so easy to get that it has arguably lost some of its value.  But there are people out there trying to be creative in getting music into the hands of fans. 

First is this list of "10 Weird Ways to Distribute Music" from Wired magazine.  I haven't personally obtained any music in any of these interesting manners, but I'm sure it is just a matter of time.

Second is this very interesting article about Radiohead's manager working with two other partners to create a venture that is designed to help develop artists and bands by investing in them and guiding them to success.  Smart, I think – it gives the artist the capital they need to perform the functions that a traditional record label would have done if they could get signed, but can't because labels are only looking to work with the biggest sellers.  

The most intriguing part to me was the last sentence: "Meanwhile, EMI, a major label, is unbundling music services such as touring and merchandise and making them available to bands that are not signed to their label."  I did a visible double take after reading it.  This is a major label rethinking how it goes to market and realizing that the old model doesn't work, but there is still a demand for its services.  It is something to keep an eye on to see if it is successful or not.

My First Wedding Topic Blog

So I am in the middle of a planning a wedding with my fiancée.  We’re about two months into our engagement and we got off to a pretty quick start.  Within a month of being engaged, we picked a wedding date, reception site, church, minister, our wedding party, and the color.  Two months in and we are down to a choice between 2 DJs and we have a photographer, as well as picked out 90% of our dinner menu.  So we’re doing pretty good.

However, one thing that we noticed very quickly is how varied the customer service levels are among independent companies.  While nearly everyone (myself included) complains about customer service operators being outsourced to India and other places where someone named "Mary" (ha!) tries to help you with your inquiry, perhaps we should be glad that we’re at least getting a response. 

Nearly every business "guru" out there will tell you that the key strategic advantages for small, independent operators to differentiate themselves from the big, giant monster corporations is quality and service.  If that’s the case, the wedding industry is in deep trouble. 

Maybe its because it isn’t something you do very often (hopefully only once….) and they know they can drag you along, but so far, customer service and just general response has been pretty bad.  Our best experience has been with the Hard Rock Cafe (a big company), where we might have our rehearsal dinner.  Even our photographer, who we love, left us hanging for a few days after the Thanksgiving holiday, leaving us to wonder if we were really meeting with them last weekend or not.  Clearly the culture of "customer first" is far more alive in corporate America than in entrepreneurial ventures.

A perfect example happened today – from a bridal gown company.  Here is the exchange between my fiancée and whoever was answering this email (click to see the screen capture).  As you can see, clearly no one was actually READING the email.  So I called – you know, just for shits anMarys_emaild giggles – and spoke with a heavily accented woman who explained that customer service doesn’t read the emails… the OWNERS DO!  That’s just what you want to hear from a company that you’re looking to spend a couple of thousand dollars with on your wedding dress.   

I like supporting local merchants and have myself lamented the loss of local stores and chains.  My parents had a small bakery that eventually fell victim to supermarket bakeries, so I know the pain that comes with losing the local flavor.  While I know that we didn’t always provide perfect customer service, I’d like to think that we tried harder than a lot of people out there.

So that’s the first of what I am sure will be many other wedding observations in the coming year or so.   I won’t bore you with details – just try to entertain you with the silly and interesting stuff.

So It’s True – They DON’T Care!

Reading this article on this morning, I felt a sense of calm coming over me.  Finally, an article that tells the truth: airlines really DON’T care about treating you all that well.  Yeah, they know they have to fix some personal interactions and flight delays, but dammit, they don’t care about giving you anything once you’re in that metal flying tube. 

Its an interesting result of travel aggregate sites like Orbitz, Travelocity, and Kayak: by making it easier to search for the lowest price, the airlines need to compete on price, and often, on price alone.

My only beef with the cattle article is that it ignores those of us who fly regularly enough to care about service and amenities – not always shopping on price, but on schedules and getting mileage points – but not so regularly that we get consistent free upgrades and travel in business or first class all the time.  I have a decent number of frequent flyer points – enough for some free tickets and upgrades – but not enough to throw them around willy-nilly.  So I actually am loyal to those airlines that I have the most points with (US Air and Delta) and will fly with them so that I can use them for leisure purposes.

I also avoid those airlines that I don’t like.  I really hate Continental.  Every time I’ve taken a Continental flight, its been late, and if you look at this chart at, you’ll see that while Continental doesn’t have the SMALLEST seat pitch, it probably has the smallest on average, with other airlines having at least a few planes that go past 32 inches.  When you’re 6′ 2", those things count.

While I understand that travel web sites have changed how airlines compete, it is too bad that they are abandoning service and quality because of it. 

Shoulda, Woulda, Coulda….

I know that this is just whining at this point, but I had this idea over three years ago dammit.   It came out of the sheer frustration of trying to find… a good salsa, of all things.  Seriously – you ever stand in the salsa section of a supermarket and try to find a good one, without giving yourself an ulcer by trying them all?  It made me think about a supermarket that would sell only the top couple of brands of each item only.  So not 25 brands of salsa or 10 different cooking oils or garbage bags… just the top 1 – 5 items that are truly the best.

Thoughts Late On a Tuesday Night

I started typing this in response to an email from someone and felt the need to make it into a blog post, since 1) it was getting far too preachy and 2) it was getting far too long and 3) thought it was too good not to share with everyone…

In December of 2004, I left a job at Garelick Farms that I had been in for almost four years to pursue an opportunity with an entrepreneurial company in Providence.  I worked very long, hard hours at Garelick, as I was in charge of not only our entire event marketing program, but the majority of work involved with implementing our marketing plan.  I once went a period of 21 days without a day off, then had two days off and worked another 14 days straight.  It was ugly.  And in the end, I had to leave the company to get a promotion, and when I came back to the parent company, Dean Foods, I was where I should have been before.

But, the story that lead to my returning is what really drove home the work/life balance issue.  The company I went to work for was the 13th or 14th entrepreneurial venture for the founder of the company.  He was 52, very successful in all aspects: financially secure, a good wife, three healthy kids, well-respected in the business world and in the community, charitable, well-traveled, and had beaten cancer twice and had even given a kidney to his brother.  Then last Easter weekend he was killed in a plane crash that took his life as well as his wife and youngest son, and another family of three from RI. 

That was wake up-call #1… that life is truly fragile and something like that can take away even the best lived life.  There were 2500 people at his funeral, and the Monday after the plane crash was the worst day I’ve ever had at work, and hopefully will ever have.

Wake-up call #2 came a month later when I got laid off along with over half the company.  The dream was essentially over. Unlike some others within the company, I wasn’t panicking since I had some warnings and have a solid network of people to rely on, both professionally and personally.  However, it is still a nerve-wracking experience: what will I do, where will I go, how will I pay my bills, etc.  Well, I picked some freelance work, did some interviews, and enjoyed May, June, and July on a basically extended vacation.  People told me when I got laid off that it will be the best thing that would ever happen to me and of course I thought they were nuts.  They were right, I was wrong – it was.  I didn’t lose my house or my car… in fact, I’m in better financial shape than I was a year ago. I rebounded quickly, got a chance to do things during those three months I would normally not have a chance to do (I went to the movies in the middle of the day for the first time ever!), and realized that my life does NOT equal my work.

Since then I’ve been doing more stuff like these classes at the Learning Connection (which were great, BTW), reading more, being more impulsive, and not working too late.  Enough to be noticed and get the job done, but at the end of the day, I just want to make progress, that’s all.  I won’t do everything that needs to get done, and it usually doesn’t matter whether I do it that day or the next morning. 

I heard a speaker say something a few months ago that really struck me: that the famous "work-life balance" is complete myth.  It doesn’t exist and never will.  It will ALWAYS be out of balance, since most people have to spend at least 8 hours working.  You also have commuting time and time for eating and sleeping.  The only way to achieve "balance" time-wise is to either stop sleeping, eating or working, and that’s probably not gong to happen.  So the best you can hope to do is to do more of what you want to do, and the only person who can do that is yourself.  Maybe I could have stayed later tonight at work instead of going to two classes tonight, but I’m confident that the two classes gained me far more than staying late at work.

When it comes down to it, I want to control my life and my work, not let my work control my life.  I let it slip away for a little too long under the guise of "paying my dues" and "working hard."  I got a nice resume item out of it and some good experience, so its not for naught, but I can’t honestly say I would do it again just as I did.

Stupid Stock Market

A few months ago I bought my first stocks that weren’t part of a retirement plan or employee stock program.  Since I am such a huge fan of the service, I bought some shares in XM Radio, which at that point had been on a slow slide and was under $30 with a target price of $39 over the next year.  I figured I’d take a chance on it. I also figured that I’d throw a few dollars at Sirius radio as well, figuring that there might be a end-of-year/start-of-year bump thanks to the start of Howard Stern on Sirius.

Since then, I have watched these stocks do some of the weirdest stuff I’ve ever seen stocks do.  Though they were my first owned stocks, I’ve watched various stocks over the years and it apparent a bunch of lunatics have invested in these companies along with me.  Even with analysts saying "buy" or "hold" the stock continues to go down.  XM has gone down about $8 a share since I bought it.

Yesterday XM Radio held their 4Q review call and while they continue to lose money and had a board member quit with a warning of a potential cash crisis, they came very close to the analysts projections and said that they would be cash flow positive by the end of the year.  They missed their 2005 subscriber target by a matter of days, ending up with their projected 6 million by the first week of January ’06. 

However, the key to the entire satellite radio industry is long-term potential.   XM was the first to launch, broadcasting nationally in late 2001, with Sirius following a few months later.  By the end of 2006, will have over 15 million subscribers, with predicitions of over 55 milllion subscribers by 2010.   Right now the cost is $12.95 a month, but that’s certain to go up and other options added on (right now, I believe the only additional subscription available on either service is a $1.99 subscription for the Playboy channel on XM Radio).

I’m not going to get into a discussion of market capitilization and P/E ratios and all that techincal stuff that analysts like to dig into.  Rather, I’m looking at what the long-term potential and viability is of these two companies, and I think it is remarkably good. 

Just in the next year, XM radio will begin broadcasting a station from Oprah Winfrey and her collection of talk personalities, as well as new shows hosted by Bob Dylan and Dale Earnhart Jr. (no, not together, though wouldn’t that be a hoot?).  They also have an exclusive partnership with Napster which allows them to integrate the techonologies and allow listeners to download the music they heard on the radio.  They have the most innovative radio technologies out of the two and have the popularity of Major League Baseball, as they will enter their second year carrying every single game played, from spring training to the World Series.

That is a pretty impressive line-up, and Sirius has their own powerful crew: the obvious one is Howard Stern, who accounted for many of the new sign-ups for Sirius over the last few months.  In addition, they have the NFL, the NBA, the NHL (though I’m not sure what’s going on with that, since XM has it too) and will soon have NASCAR.   The ability to hear your team play anywhere in the country in crystal clear audio is a pretty attractive benefit to a lot of consumers.

ANYWAY – so what’s the point of all this?  Investors are driving down the stock value of these companies based on short term losses and aggressive spending to gain subscribers.  However, any companies with 9  and 6 million subscribers (XM and Sirius’ predictions for the end of ’05) paying $13 a month are pretty attractive companies.  Let’s say that these companies act like a bunch of idiots, tryign to outspend each other and go bankrupt, but have these huge bases of subscribers?  Do you not think that a Viacom or ClearChannel or Comcast is going to pick them up in an instant?   Exclusive content deals, paid subscribers, unique technology, access to broadcasting satellites….  these companies are worth a lot to themselves and to other people.

I hope that investors realize the long-term outlook for both of these companies and help to boost the stock price of both companies, not only for my own selfish reasons, but also for the sake of this growing technology.

Well, NOW what the hell am I supposed to do!?!?

Been asking myself that a lot lately.  I’ve got a lot on the table and I’m having a tough time putting a stake in the ground and saying "yep, here I am… this is where I am, who I am and what I want to be doing!"

Here’s a quick run-down:

Had a fantastic lunch with the guys from 3-D Entertainment in Worcester today.  Ended up turning into a 4-hour meeting, actually.  They put on Locobazooka, a local hard rock/heavy metal festival.  they also do promotions and bookings for a variety of other acts and venues.  They basically offered me the opportunity to do sponsorship sales for them while getting in with a growing company (I’d be essentially the third "employee" of theirs) with a lot of opportunity.  Could start to put together my own shows and even festivals.

Yeah, for those of you who know me, this is pretty much my fucking dream job.   But it is sales – and sponsorship sales at that, which is really tough.   I’ve never been too keen on sales, but everyone tells me I’d be good at it.  And I kind of feel that I need to do this.  When else in my life am I going to have a chance to reach for a dream like this?   It isn’t IDEALLY what I’d like to be doing, but if I can slog through it for a few months, it might be the foot in the door for that later on.

However, it is a commission-only basis, so I need to find other employment.  The Ocean Group freelance stuff is keeping me pretty good, and I’ll have another training session with the Dept. of Social Services in July and/or August.  I’m still doing work for Mech-Chem (or should be… been too busy to really work on it of late) and I haven’t really reached out to all the other people who said they could help me if I went freelance. 

I’ve also got some leads with some contract marketing placement firms.

I really have this strong desire to "cobble together" what I want to do for the next few months and see where things take me.  The regional marketing manager position is definitely a good one and would be good for my career, but there is a part of me that would like to do something different and take this chance to chase a dream or two. 

I also have my boss from The Ocean Group asking me to help him with a web site for people with arthritis.  I think it is funny that it seems that every boss I’ve ever had always wants to go into business with me at some point.  I’m pretty sure it is a compliment.  I also think it is a sign…

Speaking of which, then you have my band marketing idea.  I’ve got the domains registered and a rough business plan that I’m working on and starting to bounce around.  The 3-D Entertainment job might give me an opportunity to get that off the ground as well.

Unfortunately for you, if you’ve read this far looking for a resolution to these questions and issues, you’re pretty much shit out of luck.  I really have no idea what I want to do!  Suggestions are welcome, however….

Been Kinda Busy

Yeah, so things have been kind of hectic for me lately… two weeks ago today, I got laid off from the job I started in January.  It all stems from the tragic loss of Jeff Jacober and his family, so it is hard to be bitter about it all.  He lost his life – as did his wife and youngest son – and I lost my job.  Technically, I’m still ahead of the game, I guess.  But it still sucks.

However, I still have some income for the time being, doing some freelance work for both the Ocean Group and another former employer.  I also have a couple of good job leads that are promising.  I’m hoping that one with Dean Foods comes through, as it would be good to get back into the food and beverage industry. 

Wish me luck and send me any good leads!